Arsenal stomped Norwich 5-0 thanks to all-star performances from Bukayo Saka, Martin Ødegaard, Kieran Tierney, Emile Smith Rowe, Alexandre Lacazette, Gabriel Martinelli, and Thomas Partey. Arsenal pressed, harassed, and took their chances when they came to them. And most importantly, there was no sign of the dreaded handbrake.
It wasn’t as easy as the scoreline made it look. Dean Smith’s men did not go gently into that good night and in fact tried to bully and intimidate Arsenal. But if Arsenal were once thought of as a light touch team that could be kicked off the pitch, I’m not sure we still carry that reputation.
Arsenal’s first goal was probably a bit fortunate but it was borne on the back of hard work up top. Martinelli pressured Ozan Kabak and forced him into a poor pass. Unlike in the earlier part of the season, this wasn’t a singleton pressure up top and KT backed him up, sensing the danger he sprinted 20 yards and nipped in on Max Aarons, making the important steal. Tierney was fouled for his trouble, but instead of looking at the ref to save them, Arsenal just kept attacking. Martinelli passed to Øde who passed to Saka, who dipped and shot between the legs of Ben Gibson. A nutmeg goal to open up the Boxing Day celebrations.
Arsenal were 1-0 up and Norwich tried to intimidate Arsenal. They were snapping into tackles, and actually even seemed to get under Granit Xhaka’s skin when the big lump flew into a tackle like Harry Kane – that is to say with his studs up and knee high. When Xhaka got up from the challenge he seemed to get in someone’s face and offer to take him out to dinner after the match, maybe go for a gondola ride, and afterwards hold hands on the pier while sharing a cotton candy. But the referee didn’t like what he didn’t see and after a quick consultation with the linesman gave Xhaka a yellow card. Now, we all know if it had been Granit Xhaka who did all those things he would have surely seen a red card, but fortunately it was Granit Xhaka and just a yellow.
A few minutes later, Placheta took umbrage to something someone said or maybe a little bit of a bad tackle and ran in 10 yards to chest bump Ben White. Ben White merely laughed in his face. Saka also was getting kicked all over the field and he was a bit naughty, committing an intentional stamp on some Norwich player (I don’t know his name but I’m pretty sure it’s unimportant because no one will ever remember him). Good thing VAR had been turned off prior to kickoff or Saka could have seen red. It the only explanation I can have for how Saka got away with an intentional stamp and how Max Aarons got away with an intentional handball in the box. Either that or the referees had a (yet another) Xhaka (get it? sounds like “SHOCKER”).
And Norwich kept trying to tackle hard and bully us but Martinelli actually flew into a challenge, which forced a turnover, which the Norwich player then tried to stamp on Ben White (again, I think this was Placenta), but he passed to Øde, who saw a chasm which Tierney was barrelling in to and played the perfect long diagonal to the fullback. He took a couple touches to steady himself and then just smashed the ball into the post for a goal. His celebrations after were just as amazing as the goal: he sprinted over to the Arsenal fans with his arms out like Russell Crowe’s Gladiator yelling “are you not entertained???”
If you’re counting, that’s two assists for Øde in the first half which brings his total for the season to 4 goals and 4 assists. And let’s remember that he had a goal stolen from him by Auba who was offside and slid in to try to get a tap-in. If you remember my start of the season preview I predicted that he would easily double his stats from last season and he has done that and more. I predicted the same for ESR and Saka. Saka is on pace (if he stays fit) and Smith Rowe doesn’t even start anymore but has 10 goal involvements. Two more and he’ll double last year’s tally.
But a big question for me is where was this version of Ødegaard in October and November? We don’t know. We do know that he was getting pelters from folks on Twitter so what he up and did was deleted his twitter account. Two weeks later, he was starting again. And now he’s tearing it up.
The casualty in all of this should be Smith Rowe. He was the starter in that AM position before this little run of matches but he’s been dropped to the bench. He can’t get a start ahead of Martinelli on the left, nor over Øde in the middle. It would be sad for me because I like Smith Rowe so much but he’s coming off the bench and scoring, so, there’s nothing to even worry about, for now. I suspect that this goal-scoring streak will end soon but he should get some more starts as Arteta rotates to keep legs fresh. He can play in three positions at Arsenal, so I suspect he’ll get game time.
I also want to point out something that many folks might not have seen.
For the first goal, there was a whiff of good fortune, BUT, I also noticed that Lacazette was in position to either receive a pass for an easy goal, or pounce on the rebound (for an easy goal).
For the second goal, the exact same thing, except on the other side of the goal and this time it’s Bukayo.
Any cross here and Saka scores, any rebound and Saka probably scores. For the third goal, again, we have Lacazette in PERFECT position to score if Saka aims a ball at him or if the keeper gets a glove.
The 4th goal was a penalty, though it was won by Lacazette, who got himself into a great position and received that lovely disguised ball by Smith Rowe (who gets a fantasy assist but not a real one). But the fifth goal? You guessed it! Scored by Smith Rowe who got into the deep position at the far post to score off an assist or a rebound. Which is exactly what he did.
This is just not how Arsenal were playing in October. We have completely changed our approach to games. Fullbacks are bombing forward, midfielders are getting deep in the box, multiple runners are attacking teams now. And the results are in, folks, Arsenal have played 19 matches and have 35 points. The optimist would see that and say that we are on pace for 70 points, which is certainly a top four finish.
I’m a bit more sceptical. We have played 19 but by a quirk of the schedule, we’ve played Norwich twice and not played Wolves at all. That artificially inflates our total over 19 matches by three points, BUT, even if we lost at Wolves, and supposing that all the same results happen again, which is a big ask, we are looking at a possible 64 points this season – or more! 538 is predicting right now that Arsenal will probably finish 4th and with 66 points. Former blogger here (now turned pro for Arseblog) Scott Willis is also predicting 67 points and 4th place.
Now, these are simulations based off of what we’ve seen so far this season. I think a lot of us are more pessimistic than that (personally I’m in the 6th place group still) but if you’ve been predicting 4th this season – or wishcasting – then this is probably a bit of welcome news.
And if you want more good news… I feel that Arsenal have changed their style considerably in the last two months. This isn’t just good luck and “getting the players back.” This is a massive stylistic change for Arsenal. Ever since Arteta was criticized for his team not attacking, and subsequently blaming the players, Arsenal have stopped pulling up the handbrake and have gone for bigger and bigger scores. We are sending players in the box, we aren’t just passing wide and then passing it back. Players are taking on their opponents. There is a freedom to the attack now that I haven’t seen in a few years.
I don’t think it’s all just down to personnel but I will admit that getting Xhaka back has been good for the team. I also have to admit that dropping Aubameyang was good for the team. We have simply played much much better football with Lacazette and Ødegaard than we did with Auba up top or wide left.
The cynic in me might think that Arteta used the “Auba coming back late” excuse as a reason to drop him so that he could shake things up. He had already dropped Auba the week before he stripped him of the captaincy (Everton). He had to have seen how poorly we were playing with Auba. He knew we needed Øde to dominate the area around the penalty circle. He needed to shake things up.
That might tick some folks off and for that I apologize. So, just to offer some other suggestions (since I don’t know what happened): maybe he didn’t seize on this chance to shake things up. Maybe it was just luck that he was able to get all the right pieces together and click the way that they have? Maybe it’s just down to getting Xhaka back healthy? Maybe it’s just Øde overcoming the pelters he received on social media? Maybe it was a move he was going to make anyway and Auba’s actions just accelerated things? Could be some or all of the above.
But whatever the reason why Arteta and Arsenal have changed, I guess I don’t much care. It’s just something for us to talk about and it’s not even really that important.
The important thing is that we have changed. We are a much more attacking team (8.4 xG in the last three PL matches). And if we keep playing like this, there’s no reason for even an old crusty guy like me to think we couldn’t finish top four.