Norwich make their first trip to the Emirates Stadium on Saturday, aiming to spring a surprise against an Arsenal team looking to secure Champions League qualification for next season.
Arsenal had a very inconsistent start to their season, with the humiliating 8-2 reverse against Manchester United being the low point. However, they have recovered really well from an uncharacteristic number of defeats, and this resurgence in form has left the Gunners sitting 3rd in the Premier League with just two games to play.
But with Tottenham and Newcastle hot on their heels, and the possibility that only the top three will qualify for the Champions League, Arsenal will be approaching their final two games very seriously.
Norwich on the other hand, are now mathematically safe from relegation, so for them the season has already been a huge success. The Canaries’ recent form has been relatively poor though, with just one win from their last six games. It’s plausible that Norwich’s mid-table security has subconsciously affected the players mentally, leading to a drop in form.
In terms of formations, Arsene Wenger rarely changes from a 4-2-3-1 shape. This can easily convert to a less adventurous 4-4-1-1 if required, by dropping the two wingers back alongside the two central midfielders.
In contrast, Norwich tend to adapt to the opposition, using a number of formations (4-4-2, 4-5-1, 4-1-2-1-2, 4-3-3, 3-5-2, 3-5-1-1) throughout the season. Lambert will no doubt look to stifle the threats posed by Arsenal, whilst maintaining a threat going forward.
Arsenal like to keep hold of the ball whoever possible and build up play from the back. The two full-backs push on, often leaving the two centre-backs isolated. Vermaelen likes to come forward far more than Koscielny, who is more comfortable adopting a covering position.
In the middle of the park, Arsenal’s two central midfielders and the central attacking midfielder form a triangle that Wenger tilts and rotates during games. As a result, these three players can be difficult to mark.
The two wingers play high up the pitch and are quite direct, often cutting inside towards goal instead of going for the by-line. The full-backs support the wingers but stay wide, offering options to the man on the ball.
Last season, only Fulham (35%) attacked down the centre more than Arsenal (34%) in the Premier League. This season, in Cesc Fabregas’ absence, Arsenal’s attacks have been more focused down the right (38%). Theo Walcott has been the key threat with this tactic, however he will be out of the game against Norwich through injury. On the left wing, Gervinho, Ramsay and Benayoun are all less of a threat for Arsenal, explaining the bias to the right flank.
Up front, Van Persie plays as a lone striker but is supported well by the three attackers behind him. He will often drop deeper looking for the ball which can cause centre-backs problems deciding whether to go with him or not.
Even though Arsenal are more direct this season compared to recent seasons, they still look to create simple triangles with their movement and pass the ball intricately between the lines.
When defending, Arsenal play with a high line, aiming to pin the opposition back. At the same time, they press hard from the front as a team. This forces errors in dangerous areas of the pitch and keeps the pressure on their opponents.
So, given Arsenal’s formation and style of play, what weaknesses can Norwich look to exploit if they are to get anything out of the game?
When Walcott plays, Arsenal can be vulnerable to counter-attacks down their right flank. Walcott usually plays extremely high up the field, leaving a lot of space between him and the right-back Sagna. This was exploited by QPR in their recent 2-1 victory against Arsenal. In that particular match, the subtle anti-clockwise tilt of Arsenal’s midfield triangle helped QPR too, as more space was found behind the right corner of the triangle. The combination of these two factors enabled Tarrabt to utilise the extra space, causing the Gunners lots of problems defensively.
If Oxlade-Chamberlain plays as the right winger on Saturday, his attacking qualities might also see him push high up the pitch. So this is an area for Norwich to watch closely, with a view to taking advantage of any gaps left in behind.
Thomas Vermaelen has attracted a lot of criticism for his poor positioning. So much so that opponents will actively try to draw him out and get players in behind him. In contrast, his defensive partner, Koscielny, prefers to stay deep, covering Vermaelen when he’s out of position.
Given that Arsenal’s full-backs have licence to roam forward (especially at the Emirates), Vermaelen and Koscielny are particularly prone to counter-attacks. Earlier this season, when Spurs beat Arsenal 2-1 at White Hart Lane, they played with two strikers, occupying both Arsenal centre-backs. Spurs enjoyed success by splitting the two defenders and getting runners in behind and between them. The full-backs were too far away to cover, often leaving 2v2 situations. Going two up front against Arsenal at the Emirates is bold but is one way to cause them problems.
Like most teams, Arsenal have been found wanting when they’ve been pressed effectively. Despite winning 2-1 at Anfield in March, Arsenal were very poor by their standards with their passing that day. That was down to the way Liverpool hustled them and prevented them from building any rhythm to their play. Arsenal pride themselves on their ball retention but that day they only had 46% of the possession.
Pressing was also a key tactic employed by Swansea in their 3-2 defeat of Arsenal back in January too. Swansea also played a high line and matched Arsenal’s formation, resulting in them out-passing (80% vs 78%) and out-playing (55% vs 45%) the Gunners to gain a memorable victory.
Next Page: Norwich Tactics and Conclusion… (page 2 link bottom right or top right of article)
Given the weaknesses highlighted on page 1, how should Norwich approach the game in terms of formation and tactics?
Well, first of all, it must be acknowledged that the pressure is off Norwich and that they can play with more freedom than they would if they were still fighting against relegation. With that in mind, playing two strikers would be a positive move aimed at causing problems for the two Arsenal centre-backs and creating opportunities for runners from midfield.
A target man like Holt will be a tough battle for Koscielny, just as Ibrahimovic was for him when Arsenal played Milan earlier in the season. In that game, Koscielny couldn’t compete physically with Ibrahimovic and stood off him. If Holt can dominate Koscielny in a similar way, it will not only help Norwich to build their own attacks, but it will also give the Norwich defence a breather.
The second Norwich striker would be best playing a dual role: as a proper striker when in possession, but dropping back when out of possession to mark the defensive player in Arsenal’s tilted midfield triangle. They should also look to drag Vermaelen up the pitch and out of position when possible. The candidates for this role are Hoolahan, Morison, Jackson and Vaughan. Given the requirements, Hoolahan and Jackson look more suitable for the job, with preference for Hoolahan given his more rounded ability for this niche role.
In midfield, the choices are either a flat four or a diamond shape. Preference would be for the latter, as it would give Norwich an extra man in midfield. However, it is susceptible to leaving room on the wings. This formation could still work well but the midfield will need to work hard as a unit. For example, when Arsenal get the ball in wide positions, Norwich’s shuttlers will be forced wide. To cover the gaps in central midfield, the trequartista at the tip of the diamond should then drop in as cover in the middle of the park.
It’s hard to predict the midfield players to start in this formation, but Fox would be the choice as the deep-lying playmaker, with Surman and Bennett as the shuttlers. That leaves Howson as the trequartista at the tip of the diamond. All of these players are technically very good, are disciplined, and have the energy and ability to cause problems going forward. In particular, Howson has shown how well he can support the strikers since arriving at Norwich, and he also carries a big threat with his long-range shooting. He will be equally happy to drop back into the centre if midfield to cover either of the shuttlers when defending the ball out wide.
The Norwich defence effectively picks itself due to the injuries at present. So expect Martin at right-back, Naughton at left-back, and Ward and Bennett at centre-back. Both full-backs should be look to show the Arsenal wingers out wide and directing them away from goal. Martin has been guilty of allowing this too easily in recent games, costing Norwich goals, so he should concentrate hard on preventing this.
We’ve seen how Arsenal are vulnerable defensively and how they leave space on the right-wing. We’ve also looked at the effectiveness of team pressing can be in disrupting Arsenal’s flow and forcing mistakes.
With this in mind, perhaps Norwich’s best chance of victory will be to employ a bold 4-1-2-1-2 diamond formation, with emphasis on playing on the counter-attack before Arsenal get their shape back. Norwich should look to hit the strikers in the channels, moving the central defenders out of position and creating space for midfield runners to get in behind. Howson, Bennett and Surman are all threats going forward.
When defending, Norwich should try to press Arsenal hard as a team, like they did against Swansea. If they let Arsenal play in front of them, the Gunners have the quality to rip Norwich apart. So the Canaries should look to keep their shape, stay compact and break Arsenal’s rhythm up whenever they can.
Despite having a tremendous team full of world-class players, Arsenal have shown this season that they are not invincible. If Norwich can exploit some of Arsenal’s weaknesses and play at the top of their game, a shock might just be on the cards.