Arsenal had just one clear remit left after all the other title hopes dried up one by one. Booking a place in the Champions League. That was as Arsene Wenger put it as good as playing for a title. Over the years one has learned what is most obvious to most is not so clear on a visceral level to Arsenal. There is obvious cognition at the importance of such matches but there is a clear disconnect when it come to actual execution. In a rare instance United were guilty of it against City this week and their slump comes at terrible time. But Arsenal have elevated the form of perpetual self unawareness to new heights.
Today, the Gunners played as if this was the beginning of the season. Their naivety patently obvious, their profligacy never more stunning. Wojciech Szczesny was guilty of giving up the first and third goal while the defense was equally culpable in leaving him exposed. Pat Rice has yet to figure out the defensive shape that can stop a strong counterattacking team that breaks in numbers. Playing a high line with two attacking centre backs when Arsenal's midfield cannot assure the requisite ball possession is a recipe for repetitive future disasters. Norwich had time and space to operate at will on the break as Arsenal's defense looked lost and befuddled.
What is even more maddening is that for every stroke of brilliance in crafting their goals there was an equal and opposite display of incompetence that gifted Norwich's strikes. After Yossi Benayoun's dastardly piece of skill set the Emirates afire, Song and Vermaelen were nowhere to be found when Wes Hoolahan steered a speculative shot at Szcz which the Arsenal goalie muffed up badly. The Norwich striker looked disbelieving at his slice of good fortune. Vermaelen was similarly AWOL when Grant Holt launched a shot that deflected off Kieran Gibbs and over an out of position Szcz as Norwich added to Hoolahan's strike. Holt had telegraphed his intention way in advance but Gibbs decided on a half hearted attempt to block the shot.
At the attacking end, in the same vein, Arsenal were less clinical as somehow Tim Ruddy became a bullseye for all their shots on goal. RVP had about four clear looks at goal with Ramsey also demonstrating why he couldn't hit a barn door on a clear and sunny afternoon. Ruddy to be fair was outstanding as custodian especially in the closing minutes as Arsenal took a buzz saw to their defense. It took a special Song on the dime delivery to RVP's left foot to conjure up the equalizer. The midfielder had a part to play in opening up the Norwich defense a little bit later for RVP's brace. What appeared to be Arsenal's get out of jail goal was not to be as five minutes later as Ramsey flailed at a tackle and Steve Morison was sprung free down the right. His angled shot squeezed past Szcz who infuriatingly remained vertical and the far post. Szcz earned his reputation as a shot stopper but today's match showed nothing of those skills.
The absence of Mikel Arteta was palpable. The Evertonian brings an organization in the back of midfield that Song seems to have abdicated for the eye catching pass and his forays upfront. Aaron Ramsey continues to struggle with the pace and even his tracking skills seem to have deserted him. There was a casualness to Arsenal's effort that seems to entirely miss how monumental the stakes were in this match. Spurs have regained form at the right time and Newcastle have found their purpose or should we say papiss. By Sunday evening, Arsenal could find themselves in fifth and looking at the Europa Cup. What that means to the future of Wenger and RVP, the two names that leap out if it does happen, remains to be seen. But one cannot see the top scorer being entirely enchanted at remaining a club that lives now to be an economic model and not seeking football glory. Wenger on the other hand needs to look hard at himself as a manager living off the fumes of past success and never seems to have a plan B.
For their part Norwich did exactly what they have done that has brought them much success. Hats off to them. They have shown the heart and the skill to remain in the top league. Paul Lambert take a bow. The neutrals had a match that was a torrent of missed opportunities, near penalty calls, delectable goals, outrageous defending, and a clash of wills.