Two-man team, yo.
1 - 0 Steve Morison 16'
1 - 1 Robin van Persie 27'
1 - 2 Robin van Persie 59'
Crisis club Arsenal reeled off their fifth league win in succession with an up-and-down 2-1 at Norwich City. Dominating for much of the match, the Gunners had a few cracks that let Norwich in once and gave a few other chances; but for some chances not taken, though, the men in red should have been more comfortably ahead early on. Robin "One Man Team" van Persie had two goals and transmuted lead to gold at half time, while Theo Walcott and Thomas Vermaelen also impressed.
The match saw an interesting and highly-anticipated (by me alone, probably) line-up defensively, caused by the week's injuries. Andre Santos and Laurent Koscielny on either side, with the Verminator and Per Mertesacker in the center. The makeshift line played well, I thought - Santos was better than I've seen him, Vermaelen was VerMAULen, and Mertesacker was decent-ish. Koscielny was surprisingly good on the right side, not because I didn't expect it, but because I thought my expectations were too high. He met them.
I'd like to take a minute here, as an aside, to complain about Steve McManaman, if I could - he's the worst. I understand that in the past Arsenal's defense has been sub-par, and Norwich's goal today was certainly caused by a howler from Mertesacker (more on that later). But Steve, every single time a team creates a chance against Arsenal, that isn't necessarily evidence that the defense is still awful. Sometimes the opposition can create a chance through good play, rather than simply the defense bottling it. And there weren't that many chances created: Norwich had nine shots, only two of which were on goal (via whoscored). He seems to have this narrative locked down, and he won't let it up for air even when the evidence doesn't necessarily support it. No matter, we can just buy Gary Cahill in January and everything will be all right.
Arsenal started fast, with their first botched chance coming in the first minute - Theo Walcott with a low cross from the right, which Robin van Persie scuffed wide, astonishingly for a man on the run of form he is in 2011. This would prove to be a running theme. Shortly after Gervinho won a ball with pressure that he crossed to Walcott, who had a shot blocked for a corner which was ultimately headed wide by Koscielny. Three minutes in, and Arsenal already had three pseudo-chances which weren't converted.
Norwich, to their credit and much like the other two promoted clubs, plays football. They play a passing game and play it well, and they are dogged in defense, pressing when they lose possession and forcing mistakes. For the most part, they look like Arsenal but just a touch lower in quality. Not to be a football snob, but I much prefer it when a promoted side doesn't Stoke it up and try to hack their opponents to bits, like Blackpool last year. Honestly I hope they stay up.
In the sixth minute Arsenal created another chance, when
outside forward left-back Santos played a nice through ball to van Persie, who again shot just wide with the left foot. Early on a lot of the offense was going through Santos, rather than the midfield (who were really quiet for the most part, with both Alex Song and Mikel Arteta having off-days). Five minutes later an even clearer chance was stopped by a bit of Norwich brilliance; Gervinho, who was dangerous in the first half but lacked an end product, played to Walcott, who had a great shot on goal cleared off the line by defender and rat bastard Russell Martin, whose name you will read again in this report. Arsenal threatened again and again, looking very dangerous in attack and assured in defense for the first quarter of an hour.
But then, totally against the run of play, Arsenal gifted Norwich a lead. A mediocre long ball was played to Steve Morison, who sort of threw a body block on Mertesacker to win the ball. For some reason, Mertesacker fell over. It maybe could have been called a foul, but really should not have been, and was not. Clear on goal, Morison tapped it past Wojciech Szczesny, and it was 1-0 to the home side. Szczesny stared Per down a bit, and so did I. It wasn't fun.
After that, though, Arsenal didn't really crumble like they have in the past. They basically just went back to dominating play, creating chances, and not actually scoring any of their chances. In the 18th, van Persie missed scoring a rebounded Arteta shot. Three minutes later, Santos tried a long curling shot that just missed. van Persie had a close header cleared off the line shortly thereafter, and a Gervinho shot was saved but continued on goal, only to have Russell Martin clear it off the line, again. The defense was bending but not breaking - for the time being.
In the 26th minute, Walcott took the ball on the right wing in space, and knocked the ball past the defender who attempted to close him down. He cut into the box and lashed a low cross into the six-yard box. Gervinho either whiffed it or dummied it - either way it "worked," as Robin van Persie was just behind him to poke it home. One man club, and all that.
After the goal, the rest of the half was back and forth between the two sides, with no major chances. the halftime break saw an Arsenal side unlucky not to have scored more, unlucky to have given away a goal, but one that was showing the quality and strength that would be needed to see off a determined Norwich.
The first ten minutes of the second half saw Arsenal as profligate as they'd been much of the first, creating chances but spoiling all. Gervinho really was bad after halftime, in an almost 180-degree turn from the first where he'd been dangerous. The worst was a miss that would have done Fernando Torres proud: he received a through ball from van Persie, rounded the keeper, then somehow shot the ball directly at him. The ball got away for Gervinho again, who then tried to play the ball through the six-yaer box, but passed it directly to a defender. I love Gervinho, as you know; this was an indefensible miss. It had to be 2-1 Arsenal there, but within five minutes it would be.
Aaron Ramsey wrested the ball from a Norwich defender (I'm sorry to be so vague, my cable is crocked so I had to watch on ESPN3, which looked like the camera lenses had been greased), and it ran to Alex Song as Ramsey toppled under a challenge. Song went forward, with Gervinho and van Persie ahead to his left and right, respectively. He chose door number 10, and the Dutchman chipped neatly into the goal. Another brace for the Arsenal captain, and what more can be said about him? Alan Shearer holds the Premier League record for goals in a calendar year with 36. There remain seven league matches in 2011, and van Persie has scored 31 times. We could honestly be seeing history, which shouldn't be diluted by the charges that Arsenal can't live without him. Barcelona's attack would be blunted without Lionel Messi; so would ours minus the captain. This is obvious. But that should be a credit to Robin van Persie, not a knock on the club.
With twenty minutes to go, Norwich changed their tactic somewhat, by bringing on the powerful striker Grant Holt. I have to say I was not impressed. His game is summed up by an incident in the 86th minute: the ball was played into the box for him, and he had position to receive the pass ahead of him. Instead of doing that, he ran at the ball, then stopped, stepped back into
Andre Santos Mertesacker, fell over, and yelled for a penalty. He was booked for diving by the unusually not-totally-awful Phil Dowd. Later he did it again just outside the box, and got a dangerous free kick out of it. He evidently led Norwich in goals last season, but his cameo today did him no favors in my eyes.
Arsenal essentially choked off the game after that; while they didn't maintain possession for the last third of the game consecutively, they had the ball quite a bit and even had some chances - most notably, a hard backdoor slider that Theo Walcott blasted at the top-right corner, which ricocheted off the post and out of play. Yossi Benayoun and Johan Djourou were late substitutes, for Gervinho and Walcott respectively, and both added composure to the team. The aforementioned questionable call on Holt came in the 92nd minute, giving Norwich a late path to a point; the kick was poor, and easily saved by Szczesny. Soon after the whistle brought the full compliment of points to the Arsenal, and a victorious and happy first match report to me.
This is just the sort of game that I've seen recent Arsenal sides fritter away. An early goal to the opposition on the road could lead to a loss of composure; this team kept playing its game, creating chances, and waiting for someone to convert one. When the defense had to be solid it was; honestly outside of the one massive Mertesacker blunder (no pun intended), I thought they performed well. Vermaelen and Koscielny were great at both ends of the pitch, and Santos was great in attack (while his defense still is a bit hit or miss). The pressing worked well, as Norwich was unable to maintain possession particularly in the second half. The tripartite strike force was certainly wasteful, but always dangerous. This is not an invincible Arsenal by any means, but it is one that I trust much more than other recent vintages, McManaman be damned.
Arsenal will return Wednesday, against Borussia Dortmund in North London.