Arsenal’s 2-2 draw with Norwich City is a bit of a mixed result. On one hand, because of the poor results in recent weeks, and Arsenal’s struggles away from home, an away draw is Arsenal’s best result in nearly two months. On the other hand, away against the 19th placed team, it is a game that Arsenal should win, even with confidence low. After all, the reason Arsenal sacked Unai Emery is because there is still a chance, albeit slim, that Arsenal can finish in the top 4 this season. The more games Arsenal fail to take maximum points from, the slimmer that chance gets.
That being said, the first half contained genuine positives. Arsenal controlled possession, and had double the shots as Norwich City—a rarity for Arsenal this season. With better luck, and better finishing, Arsenal could’ve gone in front, rather than chasing the game. That would help confidence; as Arsène Wenger said, in gaining and losing confidence, “you go up by stairs but come down by the lift.” Given Freddie Ljungberg only had one training session to work with the team, there are signs of life at Arsenal.
Yet, there are some prevalent issues. This goes for both sides of the ball, but especially in attack. There had been some hope that Ljungberg could magically bring the return of Wengerball, the dying embers of which were last seen in those goals scored by Aaron Ramsey and Mesut Özil against Fulham and Leicester City. Ramsey, of course, is no longer at the club. But there are other key individuals no longer at the club that make bringing the hallmarks of Wengerball—quick combination play, one-twos around the box, and the ability to retain possession at the edge of the area, moving the ball quickly to draw opposing defenders out—more difficult.
To begin with, the technical security of the attacking players is alarmingly lacking in quality. Outside of Özil, quick passes is not the game of anyone who started in Arsenal’s front six against Norwich. Granit Xhaka has a good passing range, but he does not play quick combination passes. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang gets on the end of moves. It is sometimes Alexandre Lacazette’s game, but he is not as good at it as his Arsenal predecessor, Olivier Giroud. It could be Joe Willock’s game, but it isn’t at the moment. Matteo Guendouzi shows some flashes.
This is in part down to poor squad construction. In buying Pépé, Arsenal had to get some money in to pay for the summer’s big acquisition. Arsenal sold Alex Iwobi, a player who while not the best in direct final third contributions, was crucial to the overall technical security of the team. Even Henrikh Mkhitaryan had his uses in this area. But both are gone; Pépé doesn’t start, and is more of a dribbler, anyway, Bukayo Saka is a winger, not necessarily a playmaker, and Reiss Nelson is on the outside looking in at the moment.
The result is a passing map like this, one that still resembles Emeryball. There is a significant gap through the middle and on the edge of the box; that is, the areas where Arsenal can most hurt teams through consistent possession. It is notable that Arsenal’s two goals came from set piece situations.
A change in mentality can make Arsenal better going forward. So too can pushing certain players higher up, and even the return of Dani Ceballos will be helpful on this front. But there is only so much Ljungberg can work with, as his predecessor, Emery, destroyed Arsenal’s ability to play through teams and replaced it with very little.
Defensively, major issues remain. Ljungberg, justifiably, dropped Sokratis, who has been awful. But Shkodran Mustafi was no better, and really looks cooked at Arsenal. David Luiz doesn’t suit a high line; Calum Chambers isn’t a right back. There is not much that can be done until Arsenal buy better centre backs. Yet, there are some attitude changes.
On Match of the Day 2, Martin Keown highlighted Arsenal’s reluctance to engage higher up the pitch, haring back as possession was lost. This is a remnant of the Emery era; under Emery, especially this season, Arsenal sat deep, and didn’t engage higher up, letting teams have shots from distance. This reluctant to engage was seen on both of Norwich’s goals, and in the second half, as Arsenal lost control. This can be changed with further coaching, and Ljungberg highlighted work that had to be done in transition, with engaging further up the pitch surely one of the changes he intends on making. It won’t transform Arsenal’s defenders into better defenders, but it’ll make them act, rather than standing passively, as Luiz did on both goals.
One of Arsenal’s problems under Emery was that games became basketball matches, because the distances between Arsenal’s lines became too great, and the team wasn’t compact enough. One training session isn’t enough to change a quarter of a season of poor coaching, but the hope js that Arsenal can use the next period to improve tactically, win matches, and gain confidence before the crunch of the Christmas period comes. It may determine if Arsenal’s league campaign becomes a practice ground for next season, or if there’ll be meaningful games in May.