Even in the cold light of a rather hungover day it’s hard to put into words what we saw yesterday.
As others have suggested it rather summed up our season, we fought hard to get back into a good position, then let it slip through carelessness and over-complication. Yossi Benayoun’s beautiful goal in the 2nd minute should have been a platform for us to go on and really take Norwich to task. The finish was top class, our reaction to it was that of a team who thought it was going to be easy from then on.
And if we could see it from the stands then Norwich could see from even closer quarters and they took advantage. Wojciech Szczesny had a bad day at the office, his fumble for the equaliser was the kind of mistake other keepers get crucified for, but the lack of effort and tracking back to allow the chance in the first place was played a big part too.
Then, when Thomas Vermaelen made one of his forays up-field nobody bothered to cover for him. Less than a week ago he was talking about how his understanding with Alex Song made it safe for him to venture forward, shame nobody told Song yesterday because he was nowhere to be seen as Grant Holt was put through. The finish had a bit of luck it, looping over Szczesny from the bottom of Gibbs’ foot but they exploited space that shouldn’t have been there.
We then lost Bacary Sagna to a broken leg (he went down with nobody anywhere near him) and Norwich were by far the better team in an appalling Arsenal first half. They might even have been further ahead but for a late Koscielny challenge in our area.
The second half was a bit better but the atmosphere was unforgiving until we got the equaliser. It was, I will happily admit, a fantastic pass from Alex Song to Robin van Persie and he made the side-footed finish look easy when it was anything but. It came in the 72nd minute when until then we’d looked allergic to shooting. Chances came but we did that thing where nobody seemed to want to take responsibility.
The goal changed the game, we could sense a winner and we got what should have been the decisive goal when the ball rebounded to van Persie for him to finish with his right foot to make it 3-2. There were 10 minutes to go. A goal up against Norwich and all we needed to do was play sensible, percentage football.
Inexplicably, we seemed to lose our shape entirely. We became stretched when Norwich did little to trouble us, and were ultimately the architects of our own downfall. Song had possession in midfield, he could have played a simple pass to the left back, he could have turned around and played the ball backwards, instead he tried something too clever in the wrong area and gifted Norwich the ball.
Gibbs was caught by the through ball to Morison, I thought Szczesny should have kept coming, the Norwich striker fired home the equaliser into the bottom corner. It was, in every sense, a fucking stupid goal to concede. Song’s insistence on trying to make every pass the Hollywood pass is no longer just a frustration, it’s costing us points. Yes, the assist for van Persie was fantastic but because it was the right pass at the right time in the right area.
The way he gave the ball away for their equaliser was unforgivable at this level and it’s about time somebody pulled him to one side and told him once and for all that the simple pass is nearly always the most effective. Especially when we’re trying to keep possession in our own half.
That sparked a response from us, in fairness, and van Persie really should have had his hat-trick when put clean through but his shot hit ruddy. There was a chance for Gibbs, Song back-heeled one straight at the keeper and quite how the penalty wasn’t given when van Persie was pushed over as he was about to tap-in was a mystery to everyone. If I could see the Player of the Year, with a tap-in, suddenly fall over with the goal at his mercy from the other end of the ground there’s no reason why Anthony Taylor couldn’t from much closer in.
Still, as terrible a decision as that was, and it really was, we can’t point fingers at the referee for yesterday. The dropped points were down to us and us alone. Afterwards, Arsene said:
We have to analyse the reasons why we were not sharp enough in the first half. There is no obvious reason because we prepared normally as we always do, but maybe subconsciously [we thought] we would win it. Norwich played well, you have to give them credit.
In the end we got punished for our mistakes.
The idea that subconsciously we thought we’d win it would be laughable if this wasn’t a situation we’ve been in before. Underestimating teams whose profile is lower than ours is something we’ve done time and time and time again. But even then it was more down to not getting the basics right. A sloppy, casual first half cost us two goals and then, when we’d worked so hard to get into a winning position, we gifted them a third goal when a truly focused and professional team would have just seen it out, passing them to death instead of ourselves.
Now, we have to look to others to do us a favour, third is no longer in our hands, and even fourth might not be enough to qualify for the Champions League next season. We have won just once in our last five league games, and the end of season jitters have kicked in yet again. The frustration of seeing this team work their way into a brilliant position, where third could and should have been wrapped up by now, then chuck it away hoping for favours from others is hard to express.
More than that, you have to question why this happens every season. The players are different, yet the weaknesses remain the same. Season after season the pressure of the final stages becomes too much for us. I thought we had more about us, more maturity, more professionalism and were better able to cope this time around. I was encouraged by that sequence of seven straight wins, yet it seems like it was that which was out of character for us before we’ve reverted to old, familiar, maddening type.
We have bottled it, big time, and I think the weakness in our mentality is so hard-wired into us we’ll keep repeating this mistakes time and time again. I have no real hope that anyone will do us the favour we need, and even if they do I can see us choke again at West Brom. That seems to be what we do, and does a team that has picked up 3 points from the last 12 really merit Champions League football?
Of course we can’t say it’s over till its over, this season above all others should tell us that nothing is impossible, but to have it in our hands and let it slip the way we did is just so frustrating.
The chance was there – a chance we made for ourselves it should be added – and we blew it in heartbreaking style.