Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang celebrates after he scores
Finally, after over five hours of Premier League football, and a ceaseless stream of chances in vain against a stubborn Norwich City, the dam broke and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang raised his fists towards the crowd.
After their torturous start to the season, which threatened to shred Mikel Arteta’s project at the seams, the international break has brought welcome respite and now a much-needed reason to celebrate. It might have been messy and manic, but Arsenal have their first goal, their first victory, and a fragile platform for the future, no matter how volatile its foundations.
A simple task on paper, this fixture was still undoubtedly one of the most pivotal in Arteta’s tenure, one where defeat might have provoked an insurmountable wave of backlash. These three points will help to hush those doomsday predictions and succeeded in pulling Arsenal out of the relegation zone. That precarious position evidences the depths from which they still need to emerge, but this performance proved the heart and resilience they will need to draw on in abundance.
There were plenty of individual causes for optimism, too, with Takehiro Tomiyasu excellent on his debut, Aaron Ramsdale impressing with his feet in goal and Ainsley Maitland-Niles completing an unlikely resurrection from urgent outcast to the heartbeat of midfield. His transformation alone showed that, while the misery of the past few weeks cannot be rewritten, Arsenal can now at least consider that dreaded chapter closed.
The yearning for a fresh start, both from the players and a unanimously positive crowd, was well-served from the first whistle, with Nicolas Pepe’s signature stuttering runs, springing back and forth as though the grass was burning the bottom of his boots, frequently forcing Brandon Williams into his own mimicking dance in defence. Often guilty of lacking a cutting edge, the winger’s threat was enhanced by Tomiyasu’s daring runs from right-back, the £17m signing bursting forwards on the overlap, offering the first glimpses of why Arsenal entered the deadline day melee. Their clearest chances, though, fell to Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, the captain whose finishing is a fine razor blade to this team, capable of either slicing open the opposition or leaving Arsenal worryingly blunt.
For all Arsenal’s slick passing and flashes of trickery in the opening third, the opportunity came via the simplest of routes, with Kieran Tierney looping a long ball over Norwich’s high and exposed back line. Aubameyang won the footrace with ease, sized up a back-pedalling Tim Krul with predatory glee, only for his bite to desert him at the crucial moment, his shot dragged wide. Undeterred, and too often left unmarked, Aubameyang continued to cut through Norwich’s centre-backs, with Martin Odegaard’s sublime chip setting up another gilt-edged chance, but with the ball bouncing at an awkward height, the shot was parried away excellently by Krul and hints of frustration began to seep into Arsenal’s efforts.
Norwich sensed it, too. Williams warmed into and won his battle with Pepe, while on the opposite wing, Max Aarons’ crosses were a gateway to the chaos that so often submerges Arsenal’s defence into headless bedlam. And although Arsenal ended the half on the front foot, with a Pepe free-kick fizzing over the bar moments before Tomiyasu’s volley met a similarly agonising fate, the fact remained that the Gunners’ goal drought was obstinately intact.
That pattern continued with renewed purpose in the second half, with Arsenal tearing gaps in Norwich’s defence, but still lacking the final pass to effectively expose them. Bukayo Saka had the first chance, seizing on the loose ball and forcing a magnificent block. Merely seconds later, Aubameyang’s stepovers shook off Aarons and set up Saka once again. This time, the ball rebounded to Pepe inside the six-yard-box but Williams refused to be beaten, diving brilliantly to stop a certain goal and no matter how hard Arsenal banged on the door, Norwich’s barricade wouldn’t break.
Tomiyasu left to a deserved standing ovation as Arteta brought on Emile Smith Rowe and Thomas Partey in pursuit of a breakthrough and, finally, through a roulette wheel of rebounds, flung limbs and rattled posts, they had their ecstasy and relief. It was sparked by Pepe, whose run this time could not be stifled, stepping inside onto his left foot and curling a shot that Krul did well to tip onto the post. The ball ricocheted straight back towards Pepe, who appeared offside, but Williams’ gallant effort inadvertently became Norwich’s undoing, his faint touch keeping the winger onside. From there, the ball deflected against Pepe’s ankles and onto the post before finally landing at the feet of Aubameyang, who gratefully tapped into the net. It was messy and manic, but that only made it more cathartic.
They should have added a second as Norwich’s defence became frayed in the dying stages, with Smith Rowe’s shot beaten away by Krul, but that was ultimately rendered immaterial. After such an alarming descent into early doom, Arsenal can somewhat tentatively look up again.
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