Although Mesut Ozil’s thirtieth-minute opener arrived with more than a touch of good fortune attached, thanks to the error-prone John Ruddy’s poor clearance, Arsenal’s lead was fully merited to say the least. Up to that point, the Gunners had registered six shots on Ruddy’s goal. Norwich, for their part, had not even managed to create one from their paltry 27% share of the football.
Norwich may have been the home side on Sunday evening, but Alex Neil certainly did not set his side up to reflect that. Neil looked to prevent Arsenal from playing through with a low block and a narrow and compact 4-4-1-1 formation. Arsenal, perpetually on the attack, struggled to create opportunities in the opening quarter hour, but eventually managed to fashion chances through the lateral movement of Ozil between the lines and the overlapping runs of Nacho Monreal. The visitors should have scored in the 19th minute, after the former fed the latter, only for the resulting cross to be wasted at the near post by Olivier Giroud. More fuel to the argument that Arsene Wenger requires a striker from a higher echelon of talent to truly challenge for league honours.
When the goal eventually arrived, therefore, it came as absolutely no surprise. Alexis Sanchez was Ozil’s provider, alighting on Gary O’Neil to snaffle the aforementioned weak Ruddy kick-out. Sanchez would become Arsenal’s latest muscle injury victim on the hour mark, thanks to a hamstring pull. Wenger had flagged up Sanchez’s potential issues in this regard pre-match, but rejected suggestions that the Chilean needed a rest. He may have regretted speaking so candidly in the aftermath of this one, visibly wincing when the topic of injuries was raised in the post-match discussions.
An injury returnee was partly at fault for the equaliser two minutes before half-time, as Arsenal complacency allowed Norwich back into the contest. Aaron Ramsay was beaten far too easily on the inside by the game’s standout performer Robbie Brady, whose pinpoint pass found striker, Lewis Grabban, in the area. Gabriel Paulista was rolled by Grabban after being caught on the wrong side of the Norwich frontman – the young Brazilian an early replacement for the injured (no!) Laurent Koscielny.
Arsenal’s defensive problems in wide areas continued to threaten parity for the game’s remainder as the Gunners forwards consistently looked lazy at defensive transitions. Norwich right-back, André Wisdom, was allowed to go free just minutes after Grabban’s equaliser, to combine with Jonny Howson and cross for Wes Hoolahan at the back post. Alas for the Canaries, the unmarked Irishman blazed over Petr Cech’s crossbar.
Norwich grew in confidence, enjoying a more or less 50-50 share of possession and equalling Arsenal’s shot tally of seven after Ozil’s opener. They looked more likely to snatch an unlikely win in the game’s latter stages, with the other full-back, Martin Olsson, being allowed to go free to impose two near-misses on the embattled Gunners.
First, in the 70th minute, a world class diving save from Cech kept out a misdirected Gabriel headed clearance of an Olsson cross. Norwich went so close with the resulting corner, showing why they top the Premier League pile in terms of goals scored from that particular set-piece. Howson directed an effort over from six-yards after the excellent Ryan Bennett won an aerial duel at the back post. And then, with ten to go, a delicious Brady through ball found Olsson again in the box, who unselfishly pulled back across the face instead of putting his laces through it, allowing Gabriel to clear.
A painfully familiar away performance for Arsenal fans, who witnessed their team looking supremely comfortable in the opening half hour, before poor defending in wide areas – particularly at transitions – cost them two points and very nearly cost them all three. They must also now finally begin to question their manager’s bizarrely unwavering trust in the words and competence of his medical staff. The injuries continue to mount for Arsenal. They may yet scupper what is Arsene Wenger’s best chance in a decade of tasting league glory.