The enigma that is Arsenal was encapsulated at Carrow Road on Sunday.
Victory against a mediocre Norwich team would have lifted the Gunners into second place, level on points with leader Manchester City. Arsenal was brilliant at the start but finished the match clinging on for a 1–1 draw.
For 30 minutes, Arsenal carved Norwich apart like a Norfolk turkey. Mesut Ozil, all poise and poison, pulled the strings brilliantly. The Gunners looked every inch like title contenders.
John Ruddy hit a panicky clearance to Gary O’Neal who could not control the ball. Alexis Sánchez stole it and zipped a pass to Ozil who coolly flipped a shot past Ruddy.
Norwich was on the ropes. The rout was on. Instead, for no obvious reason, Arsenal faded.
“Our level dropped,” Arsène Wenger told Sky Sports.
In the 43rd minute, Lewis Grabban shrugged Gabriel aside and leveled. Robbie Brady came close to putting Norwich ahead before half time.
“We were frustrated at half time to let them back in the game,” Wenger said.
In the second half, Arsenal briefly roused itself but Norwich ended the game on the attack.
“The penetration in the final third was not sharp enough,” Wenger said.
Worse, Arsenal’s injury problems deepened. Laurent Koscielny limped off after 11 minutes with a hip injury. Alexis injured a hamstring in the second half. And, said Wenger, Santo Cazorla finished “on one leg” after hurting a knee.
Wenger ended his interview by gloomily reciting part of Arsenal’s injury list: “Welbeck out, Walcott out….”
Yet, Arsenal remains in fourth, two points off the lead, even though it picked up just two points from three league games in November. It is, despite itself, a contender.
Chelsea’s goal-less draw at White Hart Lane on Sunday meant the Premier League champion slipped to 15 points behind Manchester City and remained 12 points away from the top four.
Yet Chelsea started the match in the unfamiliar role of underdog against Spurs. It did not lose 5–3, as it did on its last visit. The draw means Chelsea is now unbeaten in three matches and perhaps it is beginning to rebuild from the ruins.
Chelsea only had one shot on target, but it was an excellent one from Eden Hazard and drew a smart save from Hugo Lloris.
Although Son Heung-min squandered a couple of excellent chances for Tottenham, Chelsea generally smothered the home team. Chelsea manager José Mourinho had reason to be pleased.
“The best Chelsea of the season,” he told BT Sport, which broadcasted the game. “I think we have the team again.”
Mourinho, perhaps stealing a page from Liverpool boss Jürgen Klopp’s playbook, had opted to start without a proper striker. Instead, Chelsea played Pedro, Willian, Oscar and Hazard. The manager was rewarded with Hazard’s best display of the season. Overall, Chelsea looked better organized, more competitive and more disciplined across the field.
The promising result did not make the spurned striker, Diego Costa, happy. Costa has scored just four goals this season. He broke a six-game scoring drought when he hit the winner against Norwich last week but argued with Mourinho on the touchline during a victory in Tel Aviv on Tuesday.
On Sunday, Costa made it clear that he was unhappy at his demotion by refusing to warm up before the game. After Mourinho opted to use other replacements, Costa made his feelings clear, ripping off his warm-up bib and tossing it in Mourinho’s direction.
"If he wants to hurt me it would not be with a bib,” Mourinho told the BBC. “A top player on the bench will not be happy. Diego is privileged to have been kept in the team for all these matches.”
Perhaps Costa realized that while Chelsea needs a striker, he isn’t any longer that striker.
Mauricio Pochettino carried the philosophy of taking one match at a time to absurd lengths this week when he started eight of the 11 men on Sunday vs. Chelsea who played on Thursday against Qarabag in Baku.
Tottenham eked out the victory that ensured a place in the next round of the Europa League, but the 5,000-mile round trip clearly took a toll on Sunday.
Chelsea set out to throw a stifling wet blanket on Tottenham’s blazing form. But it was clear by the second half that Tottenham, a team that wins by outworking opponents, was running on empty.
Pochettino called his players “heroes” after the game. It’s not his fault that Europa League games are played on Thursdays. In one way, Sunday’s tame draw represented progress. There was a time Spurs regularly lost on Sundays after Europa League games.
KLOPP WINS FOR KOP
Like Tottenham, Liverpool gained a crucial Europa League victory on Thursday. Unlike Tottenham, Liverpool did it at home.
Like Pochettino, Klopp started eight of the same players on Sunday in LFC’s 1–0 win over Swansea. But unlike Pochettino, Klopp had shuffled his pack on Thursday.
One reason Klopp broke up the attacking trio that destroyed Manchester City away last week is that Philippe Coutinho has a hamstring injury. But perhaps picking Jordan Ibe and Christian Benteke for a more traditional attacking line is Klopp’s solution to Liverpool’s struggles at Anfield this season.
The winger and the center forward came in against Bordeaux and started again against Swansea.
Liverpool did not allow struggling Swansea a shot on target. But the Reds did not have a shot on target themselves for 52 minutes. Liverpool needed a penalty, for a silly handball in a harmless position by Neil Taylor. James Milner converted to give the Reds the victory.
Liverpool has scored just three goals in three home league games under Klopp. On Sunday it collected the points, without suggesting it had solved the problem.
ALMOST EVERYBODY HAPPY
Jamie Vardy scored for the 11th consecutive game to break the Premier League record. Leicester City drew 1–1 with the dominant team of the Premier League era, Manchester United. The Foxes should be happy. United, on the other hand, fought back for a point away to the league leader.
The top two teams in the division picked up only two points between them, so the chasing pack would have been happy, though only Manchester City, which beat visiting Southampton, 3–1, took advantage.
One man who did look happy was Roy Hodgson. The England manager appeared to chewing lemons as he watched from the stands.
Earlier this month Hodgson, who had played Vardy twice but deployed him on the wing, sent a grumpy message to the Leicester striker via the media.
“When you have only played two games, you are in no position to go to the coach and say, 'I will play for England but only in this position,'” Hodgson said.
Yet Vardy is the best central striker, of any nationality, in the Premier League at the moment. Hodgson faces the prospect of an embarrassing climb down.
Worse for Hodgson was the continued poor form of Wayne Rooney. Maybe Rooney’s 109 England appearances mean he can give Hodgson instructions. Rooney is also England’s leading scorer, he plays for Manchester United and is the darling of the tabloid headline writers and sponsors. On Saturday, he was yanked off after 68 labored and ineffective minutes by Louis van Gaal.
Rooney is not being helped by van Gaal’s system, which seems to emphasize defensive position for strikers even when United is on the attack. United played two men, Rooney and Anthony Martial, up front at Leicester, and both looked isolated. Neither had a shot on target.
Hodgson must know that Vardy and Harry Kane are in far better form than Rooney. If Daniel Sturridge, who came off the bench for Liverpool on Sunday, recovers his fitness, Rooney will drop to fourth in the pecking order, at best. Hodgson needs to succeed at the Euros to keep his job. For England, a quarterfinal place can count as success on the field, but keeping the media happy also obsesses the Football Association. Hodgson does not need to face the aggravation of having to drop his most famous player.