At 2.45pm on Saturday, it looked like we were going to be in desperate need of Tottenham suffering another lasagne induced bout of food poisoning, as in 2006. However at 4pm on Sunday, things weren’t looking quite as desperate. However given Arsenal’s remarkable ability to throw away our good work this season, we should probably start planning in the kitchen just to make sure we secure third place.
If Arsenal fail to finish in the top three, it will be our own fault. We’ve had the chances to secure that position, but have so far contrived to blow every one of them. To have one final chance is unexpected, but it must be utilised. On the basis of the season we do deserve to be where we are, you’re not third by accident after 37 games, because whilst we’ve had our failings, so have our closest challengers. The team should learn from the numerous mistakes we made against Norwich and give everything to take advantage of our final chance, as failure to do so could still result in Europa League football.
Our recent run is concerning ahead of the final game because we haven’t won for four matches now. After our win against Wolves, we’ve lost to Wigan, and drawn with Chelsea, Stoke and Norwich. A win in any of those games, and we’d virtually be safe in third place. It’s amazing that our fate is still in our hands, but the form ahead of a must-win match doesn’t fill me with confidence. At least in the draws with Chelsea and Stoke, we generally defended well. That wasn’t the case against Norwich.
It’s important to credit Norwich City. Like Wigan, they came to the Emirates to attack, and it made for an entertaining game. I much prefer seeing teams coming to our ground and doing that instead of putting ten men behind the ball. However we gave them a helping hand whenever they attacked.
After taking the lead early, we didn’t build momentum and kill the game off early. Then Wojciech Szczesny went all Almunia on us. Compared to our more recent goalkeepers, Szczesny makes less individual mistakes, but his one on Saturday was pretty spectacular. Only he will know how he let Wes Hoolahan’s shot through his hands. Szczesny will have to pick himself up from the mistake. Initially, his confidence did suffer during the match, and suddenly the defence in front of him looked shaky. Szczesny has had a good first full season, but we can’t afford daft mistakes at this stage of the season.
The shaky defence were horribly exposed for Norwich’s second goal. Thomas Vermaelen went on a charge up field, and no-one covered his position. Bacary Sagna was also attacking, so we were left with two at the back. At 1-1 against any team, that is daft. It’s hard to pin the blame on individuals for the goal as it the whole defensive unit that were all over the place. The space Norwich had to run into in front of our defence only highlighted how important Mikel Arteta has been to Arsenal this season. Had he been there, the chances are that he’d have been there to sweep up the danger, allowing the likes of Vermaelen and Song to gamble on going forward.
There were numerous occasions during the game that the likes of Hoolahan, Holt and Jackson were given the space to run towards our defence because Song wasn’t playing as a holding midfielder. He hasn’t adapted his game without Mikel Arteta, and Aaron Ramsey hasn’t done the same job Arteta had been doing. Arteta is able to read the game so well that he knows when to cover others and when to go forward, and that usually can’t be taught to players. Having an older, wiser, head in midfield this season has clearly benefitted us. It speaks volumes that we haven’t won in the league this season without Arteta.
The final Norwich goal also included a plethora of defensive errors. The team tried to push forward again having taken the lead, instead of keeping things simple and keeping possession. Alex Song needlessly gave the ball away, and then it shouldn’t have taken one pass over the top for Morison to be one-on-one. Kieran Gibbs was on the halfway line when he should have been more reserved after we’d taken the lead, Thomas Vermaelen tried to play offside, but Koscielny then dropped back to chase Morison. Having looked quite tight in the last few weeks, I couldn’t believe some of the defending I was watching. Maybe it was end of season nerves, maybe it was the confidence lost in Szczesny after his early mistake, I don’t know. The defence were open and fragile, and that shouldn’t be the case this late in the season.
Up front, when we actually put our mind to attacking, we were dangerous. All three of our goals were well taken, with Yossi Benayoun’s finish being excellent. Robin van Persie once again dragged us out of a bad situation, and whilst the draw was frustrating, we could have lost the game were it not for our Dutch leader. To reach 30 goals in the league is special. It goes without saying now how important it is that he stays. Hopefully the exciting signing of Lukas Podolski will be a nudge in the right direction for our captain.
We scored three, and had a lot of late chances to score more, but our attacking was still strange for a lot of the game. The first half was particularly frustrating as we didn’t stretch the Norwich defence enough. Along with Arteta, I think we’re badly missing Theo Walcott in the run-in. Even when he’s not playing well, he does offer width and helps make space for others. He gives the team a good balance. Both Benayoun and Gervinho cut inside too often and meant we were reliant on the full backs to come forward to offer width. That subsequently meant we were short at the back without Arteta instinctively filling the gaps. The movement from those higher up the pitch had a domino effect on the defensive side of the team.
There was a ten minute spell in the second half where Gervinho looked like a transformed player as he started trying to get to the by-line and looked dangerous again. With Oxlade-Chamberlain on, we also looked more balanced as he was happy to stay on the flank and run at his full back. If Walcott is fit enough for the West Brom game, I’d start him and Oxlade-Chamberlain. If not, then either Benayoun or Gervinho needs to be told to focus on the full back in front of them and not aimlessly drift inside.
Whilst I’ve been critical of the majority of our defending, it’s worth noting that Laurent Koscielny did have a good game. He was charging around often having to cover for others and made some crucial tackles and blocks. He stood up to some physical challenges with Holt and Wilbraham and didn’t let them affect him. If we had more players with his attitude, we’d be in better position as a team.
West Brom on Sunday will be difficult. Win and third is ours. Draw and then we’ll at least finish fourth, but will then be sweating on Bayern beating Chelsea. We want to finish above Tottenham, and a draw means we open the door for them to go past us again. A defeat, and Newcastle could still go past us and we’ll end up in the Europa League. The permutations get complicated if we don’t win, so let’s ignore those and just win.
We can expect West Brom to up their game as it’ll be the last one for them under Roy Hodgson. We have to win without Arteta, and need to win our first match in five. The team have to focus on tightening up at the back after the shambolic showing against Norwich. Over the season, we generally have learnt from our mistakes, so we have to do the same again. If we win, it puts us in the best position available to us to make sure we can eradicate the initial mistakes, which we then have to learn from, during next season.
It’s been a difficult season, and because of that it shouldn’t be a surprise that we’re stumbling towards the finish line. Fortunately others are stumbling as well. If it looks like our stumble will be costly, we can always call for the lasagne to make sure our nearest, and not-so-dearest, stumble and fall before the season finishes. It worked in 2006, so it might be time to try and find that mystery chef if we want to guarantee our place at Europe’s top table next season.