Charlie Ryan ’20
The Unai Emery era is finally over in North London, though the malaise that characterized his 18-month tenure as Arsenal manager bled into Dec. 1’s fixture at Carrow Road. Winless in their previous five Premier League road matches, Arsenal had the chance to snap their poor away form and restore a semblance of faith in the squad against a side sitting just two points above dead-last. Caretaker manager and club legend Freddie Ljunberg’s team selection did not exactly inspire optimism, particularly in defense where he experimented with a David Luiz-Shkodran Mustafi center-back pairing flanked by Sead Kolasinac and Calum Chambers.
And indeed, the defense was largely at fault for the visitors’ undoing on Sunday afternoon. But before Teemu Pukki opened up the scoring 22 minutes in for the hosts, Arsenal looked thoroughly refreshed and energized. In possession they passed with purpose, seeking vertical options to progress the ball directly upfield, linking up with close one-twos, creating passing triangles, and attacking the open space. This was a clear departure from the horizontality and sluggishness of possession under Emery. And sure, Arsenal will not be afforded this attacking freedom against an opponent that sits deep, absorbs pressure, and counterattacks, but for months the club has avoided seizing the attacking initiative, even against mid/low-table sides that allow it. As such, the opening stages of the game were like a breath of fresh air.
After a flying start to the season, scoring six in the opening seven matches, Pukki had since hit a dry spell, failing to register a goal since their victory over Manchester City in mid-September. But the Fin drew first blood on Sunday, rounding off a counterattack that faced little resistance from Luiz and Mustafi, the latter’s deflection sending the ball beyond Bernd Leno’s reach. It was an awfully soft goal to concede, encapsulating the perhaps unfixable defensive rot that developed under Emery.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang leveled things up from the penalty spot just minutes later after a Norwich handball for his tenth of the season. The first half saw more end-to-end action as Arsenal never quite settled into a rhythm in possession and Norwich refused to sit deep. On the eve of halftime the home side exploited Arsenal’s pitiful transitional defense, exposing it with a well-placed outlet pass down the left flank before Todd Cantwell received the cutback in the open space at the top of the box and coolly slotted it into the far corner. It was a well-worked goal, though had Xhaka tracked Cantwell’s run or any one of Chambers, Luiz, or Mustafi closed down the space afforded to the Norwich midfielder perhaps the goal would never have come.
Shortly into the second half, Aubameyang equalized from a sublime Mesut Ozil corner, pouncing on the loose ball from just outside the six yard box. But Arsenal would not enjoy the same quality of possession or caliber of goalscoring opportunities in the second half, and instead were bailed out repeatedly by Leno, who has firmly established himself as one of the side’s few consistent performers in recent months. Ljunberg’s substitutions made little difference and Norwich remained the sharper side throughout the half. In the end the 2-2 scoreline stood and points were split one apiece.
In spite of the frustrating result, Arsenal and Freddie Ljunberg finally have something to build on. The attack was fluid and Ozil was given the license to roam upfield and trade places with Aubameyang instead of being forced to collect the ball directly from the defense. The horizontal passes that used to bore me to tears were few and far between, abandoned in favor of verticality and triangulation. The inklings of a new offensive spirit were made manifest. However, poor defensive quality appears to be an issue incapable of remedy by tactical adjustments, tinkering with the player selection, or better individual coaching. Mustafi, Luiz, and Sokratis have all hit, or rather crashed into their respective ceilings. With William Saliba on hold at Saint-Étienne for the rest of the 2020 campaign, Arsenal must capitalize on the January transfer window and sign a cool-headed, disciplined center back in order to have a fighting chance at playing in Europe next campaign. There is a very long way to go before Arsenal are back to their best, but at the moment it looks like we are finally taking that very first step.