It took 20 minutes for Arsenal fans to break out the old Freddie Ljungberg chant that was the soundtrack to his career in north London, of love for many reasons including, at one point, red hair. With the passage of time, through a combination of wisdom and age-appropriateness, that look has been replaced by a more distinguished, slick bald cut perhaps not necessarily by choice. Still, his first match as manager would have greyed him considerably.
Norwich City may be 19th in the Premier League, but that simply meant they were going to fight for every inch against a visiting side who were in their own state of disarray. That it ended 2-2 seemed about fair: both teams as level as could be expected in most metrics. The hosts will take more away from this fixture even if a point does nothing for either's cause. For a post-Unai Emery Arsenal, a reminder that the woes up to this point were not solely on the Spaniard.
This was something of a free hit for Ljungberg. By all accounts the mood around the squad had lifted with Emery’s departure. The fans, too, with their joy heightened by a reminder of Arsenal’s glory days now sat in the main seat. For the Swede is not just a cult hero but a two-time Premier League winner. Not just a former player, but an Invincible. Here he was, back hugging the touchline.
There was not much to gauge regarding his method, and how could there be when he was only given the role officially on Friday. Even the typical new manager bounce needs more time to come into effect. Perhaps, though, there is something to be taken from how The Gunners came back twice and, were it not for a desperate block by Ibrahim Amadou’s when Lucas Torreira lashed a half-volley at goal in second-half added time, would have bagged all three points.
Daniel Farke would be the more pleased as Norwich were able to not just stick to a defensive plan but also execute attacking that relied on decision-making rather than hit-and-hope. His side’s opening goal was a microcosm of this: a counter-attack of great intent if not personnel.
Onel Hernandez’ pace was a threat, but with him winning the ball deep in the left-back position it meant Kenny McLean had only one option ahead of him as he broke forward into open space on the halfway line. Had Teemu Pukki not pulled the chord on an angled dart, there might have been no through ball to play, and had David Luiz and Callum Chambers not backed off the Finnish striker, they may have been no shot to take.
But with Pukki allowed to move to the edge of the box and onto his right foot, a shot off the turned back of Chambers beat Leno and gave the hosts a 21st minute lead. A welcome return to scoring for the frontman, ending a duck of nine matches and 18 shots without a goal.
That was soon wasted when captain Christoph Zimmermann raised his arm while defending a Mesut Ozil free-kick and made contact with the ball. He protested, naturally, pleading to the referee he’d been pushed in the back. So began the first of two different VAR checks for the same incident.
As it happened, the original decision to award the penalty was fine, as was the save from Tim Krul when Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang thumped it to the Dutchman’s right, albeit at what you might term a “saveable height”. However, both Krul and Norwich defender Max Aarons had misstepped, off the goal line and into the box respectively, meaning the penalty – following video confirmation – had to be retaken. Aubameyang went the same way, Krul didn’t and that was 1-1, and the forward took great pleasure in shushing the keeper after the latter had tried to put the former off.
Five minutes had elapsed from the time the penalty was awarded to when it was legitimately taken, which made the there minutes of first-half added time all the more bemusing. Nevertheless, it was enough for Norwich to retake the lead, again on the break and again with their attackers outnumbered by defenders.
Hernandez led this break and, having bought some time, fed the ball into Todd Cantwell who took it in his stride and into the box, finishing neatly into the far corner.
There was a whiff of contention around the goal as McLean, who had set Hernandez off, was yellow-carded for a studs-up challenge onto the ankle of Matteo Guendouzi. If we’re working on the assumption that VAR checks all of these matters – and the line from Carrow Road to Stockley Park was certainly working – then nothing was deemed inappropriate. But it certainly did not look pretty.
Arsenal did not wallow, instead starting the second-half with more vigour and, 12-minutes in, drew level once more. Aubameyang again, this time feeding off scraps – the ball breaking to him momentarily in the box from a corner – to fire into the far corner for 2-2.
That should have been just the boost Arsenal needed to grab the match by the scruff of its neck and take the three points. Yet it was Norwich who took things up a gear.
Two minutes on from the equaliser they should have been retaken the lead when McLean benefited from Amadou’s pressing and Guendouzi’s doziness to run through uninhibited on goal. His shot from inside the box looked destined for the far corner but Leno had other ideas, springing to his left to tip away what looked a certain third.
The keeper was wrong-footed and helpless when Cantwell’s dragged a shot just past the post from 10 yards out but stood tall and firm when, just a minute later, Pukki turned David Luiz inside out to give himself shooting room just outside the left point of the six-yard box. An eventful 10 minutes for the German was capped off with another save keep a McLean strike away from the far corner, this time from a free-kick.
That the game then descended into a low-quality scrap was evidenced by the fact Leno’s next bit of action – indeed, the next for either keeper – came as the clock moved past 90 minutes when he clawed away Aarons’ deflected effort after the right-back was encouraged to break into the box as Arsenal’s backline retreated.
He was again in action to smother a chance that might have led to a winner and in turn set up the attack that led to Amadou’s last-ditch heroics. In dissecting what was a breathless first match in charge, Ljungberg will no doubt be hugging his keeper very tightly indeed. The hard work to turn Arsenal's season starts now.
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