Norwich City face Arsenal today, the Gunners a team who have been through a lot of change in 2019-20.
To discuss their form since the restart and understand the ambitions going forward, canaries.co.uk spoke to James McNicholas, who covers the club’s fortunes for The Athletic.
canaries.co.uk: With two defeats followed by two wins, what have you made of Arsenal since the restart?
JM: Yeah, they had a nightmare start to be honest, and it wasn’t just the results. In that game against Man City, Xhaka and Mari both got injured and they’re both important players to Arteta for different reasons.
David Luiz got himself suspended and then they had Bernd Leno go out with a long-term injury, who’s been, alongside Aubameyang, their outstanding player this season.
Then there was all the contract controversy to deal with; making decisions on Luiz, Ceballos and so on. It’s been a crazy couple of weeks but they’ve managed to turn it round and win two games, which is a relief.
They started with a really difficult schedule of four away games in the space of a fortnight, so there were lots of travel implications and it’s been a tough period, but there’s a palpable sense of relief after winning a couple of games.
I’d say the quality of the performances across the four matches haven’t been dramatically different, kind of middling in all of them. They got a bit of luck against Sheffield United, getting that late winner, and they were unlucky to lose at Brighton.
It’s been a mixed bag of results but a consistent level of performance, which I think tallies with most teams coming back to the Premier League, they’re just looking a bit disjointed, lacking a bit of intensity and maybe not quite as fit as they’d like.
At least they have some positive momentum now with some wins under their belt.
canaries.co.uk: What would you say is the aim now for the rest of the season? The top four looks a long way off, but the top six may be more realistic?
JM: Arteta was asked about that and said it’s just about winning the next game, as much as that’s a boring managerial thing to say.
They’re still in the FA Cup and have a difficult draw against Man City, but they beat them in the semi final when they won the cup in 2017.
I think it’s a bit of a protracted pre-season for next season. I don’t mean that the games don’t matter, but it’s about Arteta finding out what he can, particularly about the younger players in the squad like Saka, Nketiah, Willock etc.
They’re really excited about them and want to see what they can do. Especially with all the transfer problems, I think those young players are going to become all the more important.
canaries.co.uk: So is that what Arteta needs to do to give Arsenal the best chance of success next season - play the younger lads?
JM: In the transfer market, it will be less of a case of what he needs to do and more a case of what he can do. Arsenal weren’t talking about having a huge amount of money prior to the pandemic, and as one of the Premier League club’s whose highest percentage of revenue comes from matchdays, it’s a huge loss to not have fans in the stadium.
A player I missed off who has also been injured is Martinelli and that’s a shame because they think very highly of him and he’s not going to play again this season.
Tierney isn’t an academy player, but a young one they’re really positive on.
They just need to give those guys experience and minutes - Reiss Nelson as well - and just see what level they can get them to, because Arteta isn’t going to have a choice, they will be part of the setup next season.
He’ll still talk about Europe and the outside shot of qualification, but I think most fans are pretty realistic about our chances in the Premier League at this stage.
canaries.co.uk: Is it cause for optimism the nature in which Arsenal beat Sheffield United in the FA Cup, scoring in injury time to win?
JM: Yeah, they’ve won ugly in their last two games. Fans would rather see them win pretty and convincingly, for sure, but they had to dig in against Sheffield United who were good in the air and on set-pieces and they just about got away with it.
I think they were really encouraged by the performances of Pepe and Tierney. They spent a lot of money on both of those players last summer and haven’t seen what they necessarily expected from them yet.
They’re starting to look like they might be settling and finding a bit of a groove and that's good news for Arsenal because they are two players in the right age bracket who they can build around and go forward with for the next few years.
canaries.co.uk: You’ve mentioned how good Leno has been this season, but how has Emiliano Martinez done standing in as the backup ‘keeper?
JM: So far, he’s looked very assured. He’s much older than you think, 27 now. I don’t think he’s played 50 games for Arsenal.
He’s had a lot of loan spells and not all of them were successful but in 2019 he went to Reading for the second half of the season and had a great spell. I think he was voted their Player of the Season.
He came back very confident and has been waiting for a chance like this. The main thing to look out for with him is that he's a calm, imposing figure, but also for a big guy he’s incredibly good with his feet. He can pass it well.
He has a sort of sidekick South American goal-kick style which allows him to absolutely ping it with his laces about 60 yards. Given some of the pace Arsenal have up top, it’s potentially a different style of attack for Norwich to deal with.
No-one is expecting him to take the number one shirt, but he’s showing why Arsenal have persisted with him and developed him for so long.
canaries.co.uk: What are your memories of our previous meeting in December, Norwich 2-2 Arsenal?
JM: It was a weird time for Arsenal because it was Freddie Ljungberg’s first game. Arsenal fans were so delighted that Unai Emery was gone that it was all sunshines and rainbows, even though Arsenal didn’t win the game.
It was a big game because Ozil started, who hadn’t been the number one guy under Emery. Arteta is now the third manager in succession to have doubts about him.
Interestingly, Saka came on as a sub in that game. Ljungberg was a big advocate of him, having been the Under-23s coach the previous year. He sort of kick-started his journey into the first team.
I think Saka and Mustafi are the only two players to start each game since the restart which, given Saka is 18 years old, is pretty incredible.
Arsenal weren’t in a great place at that time. Everyone is looking at this home game and thinking it would be great if they look a bit more comfortable, but they’re also aware the opposition are going to be fighting for their lives.
Home advantage isn’t quite what it was. Arteta said that any time you’re facing a team in a relegation scrap you know you’re going to be tested. I don’t think Arsenal fans are expecting us to turn up and roll over Norwich because we’ve not been playing in that fashion at all.
You’ve always got a chance against Arsenal’s defence. If Norwich come and play and look to hurt Arsenal, they can because they’ve got some good footballers. The key will be using the opportunities they create to score, because I think they’ve got every chance of that.
You can follow James on Twitter @JamesMcNicholas.