A league return for Granit Xhaka, an away start for Mesut Özil and Shkodran Mustafi’s first league appearance of the season after a consistent and assured presence throughout the Europa League group stages brought a new look to the starting lineup. Seeing Per and Freddie together in the dugout took some adjusting to – familiar faces in an unfamiliar setting.
I suspected we’d go back to four at the back but whether Freddie sticks with the same system or changes depending on the opposition remains to be seen after today’s initial experiment.
Hearing him speak before the game was refreshing. Acknowledging the problems with time constraints and existing dramas such as the captaincy, he seemed calm, measured and realistic about his opportunity. I’d love nothing more than everything to work out but time will tell.
There was a noticeable difference to our shape, pressing higher up the pitch with a higher back line to accompany it. We resumed the role of protagonist after an 18-month hiatus as Norwich struggled to adjust to our tempo in the early stages. It was a welcome sight to see us breaking with speed and precision, with numbers in the box and no hesitation in playing long balls if the opportunity was there. The Chambers-Leno metronome was shelved, hopefully never to be seen again.
Without the ball, there were clear lines of defence; no longer a gaping void outside our own box. This wasn’t always the case; there’s work to be done in recovering more quickly without the ball but for the first time in god knows how long, we at least had an ever-so-slightly positive shot differential.
Our best chances early on still came as a result of set pieces in the early stages but the change in intensity and quality in the final third was immediately clear. I didn’t expect immediate results in this area but the early signs were promising.
Norwich’s first was very much against the run of play (for a change), taking a hefty deflection as Pukki ended his goal drought. It definitely took the sting out of an otherwise promising start.
For the misfortune moments before, Norwich handed us an early Christmas present with one of those handballs where you just can’t understand what the defender is thinking with his hand up there. Tim Krul’s usual pre-penalty antics thankfully came back to bite him after VAR finally made the right call. He may have a good record and I was worried when Aubameyang first stepped up but by the letter of the law, it was the right decision to overturn the first attempt and frankly, I couldn’t give a toss. I remember a game when Krul was at Newcastle and time-wasted from the start – we ended up getting a late winner so the karma was oh so sweet. Aubameyang made absolutely no mistake with the second attempt and no amount of crying and squabbling from Krul could change that. The fact that the encroaching player was the one to actually clear the ball leaves no excuses.
Norwich’s second was again frustratingly against the run of play, and so close to half time. They broke quickly and the ever-immobilised Granit Xhaka was off the pace, leaving Cantwell with ample time and opportunity to tuck it away. Xhaka’s recurring inability to spot danger early can’t be understated and Norwich took full advantage. He made some good interceptions and tackles throughout the game, but the buck ultimately stops with the fact he just leaks goals. Freddie will do well to realise this quickly or face the wrath of a fanbase who are at their wit’s end with the short-lived captain.
Questions were always going to be raised at the likes of Xhaka and Mustafi returning to the team; I thought Mustafi had at least deserved a chance given Sokratis and Luiz’ shaky form and he was at least the better of the two centre backs today. It was Luiz who lost his man and failed to close down Pukki despite Mustafi being the cause of the deflection. I never expected our defensive frailties to be fixed in 3 days and Freddie and Per will have their work cut out in getting them up to speed, but I was more interested in seeing our response in the second half.
The second half started slowly but Aubameyang, so often our saviour, was in the right place at the right time and got his second dose of karma of the afternoon.
If not for a truly world class save from Leno, Xhaka’s lack of awareness would have cost us again. Freddie would also do well to address our naïveté immediately after scoring, as we so often surrender our momentum with careless play. If it weren’t for Leno, the result could well have been damaging.
Freddie is also still faced with the quandary of how to accommodate both Lacazette and Aubameyang together; the duo clearly have an on-field understanding but it’s clear that the latter is the one who is most disadvantaged. Thankfully, it doesn’t seem to ever stop him from getting amongst the goals but under Emery at least, we always seemed to be more dangerous when Aubameyang was the central figure. He’s a clever enough player to know when to drift out wide but it always pains me when he finds himself putting balls into the box rather than being on the end of them. Lacazette struggled to make an impact today; it’s clear he is significantly more effective at home but he is going to need to raise his standards.
The game was poised for change and Pépé was the player I was most interested to see deployed under Freddie after being largely mistreated and misused since his arrival. His confidence will take some time to rebuild but a busy Christmas schedule will give him plenty of opportunities to do so. Instead, it was Saka who was introduced, though he was the most ineffective of the three changes
Lucas Torreira was another one in need of some redemption, and he provided some crucial touches in several instances. This is his time to claim his place in the starting lineup and get his Arsenal career back on track – he is one I’d hate to see leave because I really think he has all the qualities to succeed here. On another day, he might’ve even grabbed the winner. After impressing today, I expect him to start on Thursday as we host Brighton.
The grandstand finish wasn’t to be and a frustrated shake of the fist at the final whistle from Freddie summed it all up. His substitutions were hardly conservative but as the game came to a close, it felt like the fear of losing overcame the desire to press for a win.
I’m sure the result will come to some, if not many as a disappointment but there were plenty of positive takeaways from this afternoon. A full week of training (almost) under the guidance of Freddie and Per will do them the world of good, as they begin to iron out the obvious deficiencies ahead of Thursday. I suspect this will be a sterner test but having been now blooded into Freddie’s tenure, the team will be all the more prepared for it.
Not wanting to beat a dead horse, but I’m eager to see what effect Bellerín and Tierney will have on the team when they return. Tierney has impressed me every time he’s played, a stalwart of consistency, just like his predecessor in Nacho Monreal. Kolasinac is a tidy enough player, just as Chambers is, but going forward, they lack the quality and consistency in the final third to ever be starters in my book. Likewise. Bellerín’s pace will be a welcome addition – even if he’s lost a yard or two – as Freddie will no doubt seek to recapture the pace and flair of the Arsenal he is familiar with.
I haven’t come away from today with a bad taste in my mouth. There are still problems, much of which can be attributed to the repeat offenders such as David Luiz and Xhaka, but for now, I trust in Freddie to take the appropriate action to remedy them. The first home game will be an opportunity to really set the tone and I expect Tierney and Pépé to feature. I also wouldn’t be surprised if Sokratis comes into the starting lineup for David Luiz. Freddie has to be given room to tinker and the defence is still in need of the most attention (there’s another dead horse).
At the very least, I’m just as excited for our next game as I was today. Until then.
N.B. Taking a cursory glance at today’s statistics show considerable improvement in the amount of chances we’ve created and general control of the game, but work still to be done. We at least had a positive shot differential: