It isn't controversial to say this was a pretty blunt and lackluster performance by Arsenal. The first 10 minutes transpired well enough for the Gunners. The plan seemed obvious: Press high, keep and recover possession very quickly, get the early goal.
Norwich City had its own ideas, of course.
Once they weathered the first 10 minutes and the match entered the 15th minute, the match had by then settled into a pattern, which held to the end. Arsenal tried unimaginatively and in vain to unlock the tight and disciplined Norwich defense, while Norwich stayed true to its compact defending.
Early on, Norwich had tried long-range shots. My supposition for this was that this was deliberate, driven by the idea that Vito Mannone isn't solid enough in goal and could easily be beaten. Whether this thinking is correct or not is open to discussion.
It is safe to say that while Mannone is not to blame completely for the goal that defeated Arsenal, he could perhaps have done better, say, parry the ball to his left and away from goal, rather than to his right as he did, enabling Grant Holt to latch onto the rebound and deliver the sucker punch that consigned Arsenal to defeat this week.
Holt's goal having come in the 19th minute gave Arsenal enough time to recover and turn the match around.
There was a sense that, after all, this was a lucky goal of sorts, having come from nowhere, really. The alarming thing, though, was that Arsenal were unable to use the vast amount of time available to them to turn the tie around.
In fact, Arsenal didn't trouble goalkeeper John Ruddy at all. He wasn't called upon to make any real saves, and this is where the alarm bells should ring.
But if we were to enquired as to why exactly Arsenal were toothless, the answer is quite easy, and, in fact, rather simplistic.
Someone might say it was the blunt front three that let the team down, but to conclude thusly would be to miss the real problem.
For those who can remember the corresponding fixture last season, they'd recall that Arsenal tore apart Norwich's defense on several occasions. What kept the scoreline respectable from the perspective of Norwich was that Arsenal were not clinical enough and on occasion plainly unlucky.
Now if we were to take note of what Arsenal did right on that occasion, things that were missing here, we would be closer to identifying the real problems in this match.
In that corresponding fixture last season, three things stood out in that match:
1) Arsenal's tempo was quick
2) Arsenal used direct approach to attack
3) Arsenal's midfield was dynamic
If we compare this to this particular match we find that Arsenal's tempo was lethargic; that their approach to attack was roundabout, with passing movement contorting on itself and mostly lateral; that the midfield failed to create anything cogent.
Let's elaborate a little.
Arsenal at their best are always quick and crisp. In fact, over the several years that the club has been trophyless, it hasn't been from lack of ability to score goals. Arsenal have never had a problem scoring goals or creating tons of scoring chances.
The problem, rather, has been on the defensive end.
Few teams can cope with Arsenal when they get into their crisp and quick passing mode. Here, the level of quickness and crispness was well below par. What this admits is the chance for the opposition to retain its shape, and once a team can maintain its shape, it becomes a difficult task to break it down.
I got the impression (or rather, I get the impression) that Arsenal were (or are) trying to play like Barcelona. Arsenal, of course, have always been compared to Barcelona, but they have kept their distinct style over the years, which is way more direct than Barcelona's.
In fact, a well-oiled Arsenal is more pleasing to watch than Barcelona, because of their much more direct approach and quicker tempo.
If, indeed, they are now trying to play more like Barcelona, they are doing so without the quickness of passing of the latter.
I should clarify this.
It is true that Arsenal are quicker, but it is often on the tempo aspect. Barcelona are quick too, but not in general speed of attack; their quickness lies in how fast they move the ball between themselves. This is the specific ingredient that Arsenal lacked in this match.
If you want to play more like Barcelona and be measured in your approach to attack, you have to move the ball quickly from player to player. This frustrates the opponent, who are left to chase shadows, even though your own players aren't running that quickly, since you are allowing the ball to do the work for you.
If you ask me, I'd rather Arsenal retain their direct and quick style, which is a combination of quick inter-player passing and high tempo. It is what makes Arsenal unstoppable when they are at their best, what has made them disorganize opponents' defenses over the years.
Arsenal were able to create tons of chances in the corresponding fixture last year because, then, the midfield was much more dynamic. On that day, Aaron Ramsey played on the tip of the midfield, where Santi Cazorla now operates.
Ramsey is a creatively oriented player, and when on form, plays better there.
Mikel Arteta played the box-to-box role, functioning as the link between the team's defense and attack. This is the role Ramsey played here, and he isn't good at it.
Arsenal have never done well when Ramsey had been played in this role. He isn't that kind of player. If you review this match, you'll find it hard to remember anything of note Ramsey did. It isn't that he didn't play well; that's not the issue.
The issue is that his role required him to be the dominant force in midfield. I do not believe that he was.
To get my point, if you line up Arsenal's three midfielders on the day—Cazorla, Ramsey and Arteta—and ask, who among them stood out the most, you'd have to say Cazorla did his job well. You'd also have to say that Arteta fulfilled his own role well as the primary holding player.
But what about Ramsey? What, specifically, was his role here? You might say he roamed the midfield, and you could be right, but the question is, to what effect?
Here's another illustration.
When Arsenal had a dominant performance at Anfield against Liverpool, who was the standout player in this match? It was Abou Diaby, of course, and he played the exact role that Ramsey was deployed to play here.
Had Ramsey bossed the midfield in a similar manner, the story of the match would have been different, I believe.
The point is, the link required between defense and attack wasn't there at all. And if the reader is hearing me well, my point isn't to say Ramsey is a bad player or that he necessarily played badly in this match. The point is that Ramsey doesn't do well as the link between defense and attack.
He isn't that kind of player, and I have said so time and again. I should like to remind the reader that whenever Ramsey has been played in that role Arsenal haven't done well at all.
Since Diaby is out, I expected Arsene Wenger to play Francis Coquelin in the holding midfield role. This would enable Mikel Arteta to move into the box-to-box role, a role he proved adept at last season, and a role he played when Arsenal defeated Norwich at Carrow Road last season.
What I'm saying in essence is that I believe the combination in the midfield was wrong. As such, Arsenal's front three aren't to blame for this blunt performance.
The defense performed adequately, and if the midfield combination had been right and the team had created chances, the unfortunate goal wouldn't have mattered. Arsenal would have won the match anyway.
It is my belief that the team needs to change its approach to matches: It needs to be quicker in attack and in passing.
In the absence of Diaby, Wenger should bring on Coquelin instead of Ramsey. Ramsey is an option for Cazorla or wide left in the false 11 role, not for the box-to-box role.
While I believe Arsenal will still finish in the top four this season, a performance like this simply says the Gooners should forget any dreams about winning the title.
Let's hope for a better performance against Schalke in midweek in the Champions League.
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