Our early season run-in with Norwich saw us crash and burn on a 19th minute Grant Holt goal in exactly the kind of loss a team like ours should really be able to avoid. It was the second time in as many weeks that we had conceded the first goal, but we didn’t rally as we had against West Ham the previous week. It’s one thing to drop points against Chelsea and Man City. We know it’s going to happen from time to time. It’s when we drop points to relegation-threatened teams that really undermine us. Those are points that should
be in the bag. A lot of the criticism was heaped at the time on Vito Mannone, and he really, really should have done better than to concede a rebound, but he was hardly alone in his guilt. He wasn’t the one marking Tettey on the initial shot, and he wasn’t the one who failed to mark Holt as he charged in from just inside the 18 to put away the rebound. He certainly wasn’t the only one who failed to score a goal against a team that plays a version of defense sometimes dubbed “suicidal“. Happily, we’ve grown quite a bit stronger since then and should make mincement of the Canaries on Saturday.
We were sloppy and careless all day in that game, and we didn’t improve much after the goal, even though there was still 70 minutes of football still to be played. Poor shots, offsides, less-than-stellar passing…in a game in which he held the ball for 72% of the game, we really only tested their keeper three times. By this point in the season, Norwich had already conceded 17 goals and had a -12 goal-differential in seven games. We gave them only their second clean sheet on the season. In short, we were poor all around, and we shouldn’t scapegoat Mannone too exclusively, even though he could have done better.
Norwich’s Tettey took the shot from about 25 yards out after Arteta failed to close on him from behind, and Vermaelen didn’t step up with any authority. The shot, struck quite well, skipped just in front of Mannone, and the best he could do was dive to parry it, unfortunately right back to the top of the 18. Holt was waiting there, and Mertesacker, who had just jogged past Holt a moment before, was far too casual in reacting to the shot or its rebound, leaving Holt with a clean run onto the ball. Am I being too generous in my defense of Mannone? I’d argue that others have been too harsh in their attacks, which seem to blame one man for the failures of many.
That was then; this is now. Let’s move on.
After that game, we sat in 9th place with 12 points taken from 24. Since then, we’ve taken 44 from 69 and have climbed to 4th (okay, 5th). Norwich languishes just four points above relegation. It’s not like they’re on a poor run, at least by their standards, but they have been surprisingly tough at home against teams at the top of the table, having beaten Everton and drawn with Spurs in recent weeks. For as tenacious as they are at home, they are positively toothless on the road, having won just once in 16 trips to go with seven draws, and they’ve been outscored almost three to one (32 conceded, 12 scored). By contrast, we come in one of our strongest runs of the season, having won five of our last six and outscoring opponents 10-2 in the last four.
We’ll see that Wilshere and Walcott are available, but why mess with a good thing? Gervinho has earned at least one more start, but Rosický might be ruled out thanks to a hamstring injury. Could this be Podolski’s chance to come on? I haven’t found any more information on this surgery rumor or other injuries. Absent that, I wold love to see one of our most clinical finishers have a go at Norwich’s defense. With a tougher match against Everton on Tuesday, maybe Wilshere and Walcott come on later in the second half to shake off the rust (and keep everyone’s legs relatively fresh). Norwich’s keeper Mark Bunn suffered a groin injury fifteen minutes into their 2-2 draw with Swansea, but he may play anyway. That seems to be it on the availability front.
However, I’m not worried about who suits up for them. If our lads play our game, we should really be able to land a knock-out blow (or two) faster than you can spell our starting keeper’s name (including accents), whoever that turns out to be. I’m mum on the subject (check the post before this one for more on that issue…).