Danny Welbeck keeps Arsenal on Champions League track vs. Norwich
LONDON -- Three thoughts from Arsenal's 1-0 win over Norwich in the Premier League on Saturday.
1. Welbeck strengthens Gunners' UCL grip
Arsenal strengthened their hold on a Champions League spot on an afternoon that provided a measure of vindication for manager Arsene Wenger at the Emirates.
Danny Welbeck gave the Gunners an immediate spark when he came on as a substitute to fire the struggling Arsenal ahead with a well-struck shot in the 59th minute. It was the first real chance Arsenal mustered, but also the only one they needed after living dangerously at times against a feisty Norwich side.
The performance was far from pretty, but Welbeck's goal ensured it was a good day for Wenger, who was shown loud support from the crowd after an unconvincing fan protest at the Emirates.
The manager remains under heavy pressure, but his record of reaching the Champions League in every season looks likely to remain intact after this win. The Gunners climbed provisionally above Manchester City into third place, and are now eight points ahead of Manchester United and West Ham.
For Norwich, this could be a crushing defeat in the relegation battle after seeing Newcastle win and Sunderland draw earlier in the day. And the Canaries arguably deserved at least a point after executing their game plan to near perfection until Welbeck's goal.
Wenger had called for better efficiency in the final third after last weekend's 0-0 draw at Sunderland, but there was no sign of that for the first 58 minutes Saturday. Wenger went with an unchanged lineup for the third game running, opting to stick with struggling striker Olivier Giroud up front, even though the Frenchman doesn't have a league goal since Jan. 13.
That drought never looked likely to end here, and his first-half performance did little to repay Wenger's continued support. Giroud had one scoring chance in the first half when Aaron Ramsey fed him the ball in the middle of the box, but the Frenchman took too long before shooting and his effort was easily blocked by a defender. Given how the Arsenal attack has looked much more dynamic when Welbeck forms a front three with Alexis Sanchez and Alex Iwobi, Wenger's decision to keep Giroud in the lineup was puzzling.
Even stranger was his decision to take off Iwobi rather than Giroud when Welbeck finally came on 10 minutes into the second half. The substitution was greeted by loud cheers as Welbeck prepared to come on, then loud boos as Iwobi's number was put up instead of Giroud's.
But it was the two Frenchmen who had the last laugh. Giroud showed that his strength in the air is still a major asset as he met a cross in the area and headed the ball down for Welbeck to slot in a shot that took a slight deflection to beat Norwich goalkeeper John Ruddy.
Wenger and Giroud will continue to have plenty of doubters after this game, but one could call it partial vindication for both.
2. Fan protest fizzles out as crowd backs Wenger
Much like the Arsenal season they're so unhappy about, the planned protest by disenchanted fans at the Emirates fizzled out in an unconvincing manner.
The pregame talk had been focused largely on the drive orchestrated by two leading supporter groups to show their discontent with Arsenal's disappointing season by holding up signs reading "Time for change" during the game. But when the time for the protest came in the 12th minute, only a few hundred fans around the Emirates held up the print-out signs -- and they were booed loudly by others. Soon chants of "We love the Arsenal" and -- even louder -- "There's only one Arsene Wenger" were ringing out around the stadium. By the 78th minute when a second round of the protest was supposed to happen only a few signs were held up.
Wenger had claimed on Friday that the fan discontent was being fuelled by a small group of people with "a personal agenda," and it was clear on Saturday that the Frenchman still enjoys the backing of a large number of fans.
Of course, there were again a few thousand seats gaping empty as some season ticket holders seemed to stay away for the second home game running. However, the game was officially a sell-out and as long as the matchday revenue keeps pouring in, the club hierarchy is unlikely to be swayed either by fans staying away or holding up signs.
But after a season in which Arsenal exited the Champions League in the round of 16 once again, limped out of the FA Cup against Watford and saw their Premier League title challenge peter out completely in 2016, it's clear that the Arsenal fan base remains bitterly divided about the best course going forward, and a few heated arguments broke out among supporters right after the 12th-minute protest.
And it's equally clear that it will take more than just another Champions League spot to win some of them back.
3. Damaging defeat for unlucky Norwich
Norwich had clearly read the script for how a visiting side should set up at the Emirates. Having seen the likes of Swansea, Southampton and Crystal Palace all successfully frustrate the Gunners by dropping back deep and focusing on counterattacks, it was no surprise that Norwich manager Alex Neil adopted the same approach, despite his team badly needing points in the relegation scrap.
The first half was typical of recent Arsenal games as they enjoyed plenty of possession and precious few scoring chances. Instead it was Arsenal goalkeeper Petr Cech who had the only real save to make. After Arsenal spent several minutes passing the ball around in midfield without making any progress, Iwobi finally got a bit too impatient and gave the ball away. Norwich responded by launching a quick counterattack and took a much more direct route toward goal, as Nathan Redmond collected a cross and tested Cech with a low shot that the goalkeeper blocked with his leg.
Redmond had two more chances, first forcing Cech to punch the ball away with a fierce shot from the edge of the box, and then firing just wide shortly before the break.
Even after Arsenal scored, Norwich had their chances to equalise. But Gabriel Paulista, who had come on for the injured Per Mertesacker, slid in for a last-ditch tackle that stopped Cameron Jerome from scoring from point-blank range and the Gunners managed to hold on.
Ruddy even had to make a decent save finally as he dove to make a one-handed stop on Mohamed Elneny's shot with 10 minutes left.
Despite the spirited performance, it was a third straight for loss for Norwich and leaves them in 19th place, one point behind Sunderland and two behind Newcastle in the three-way scrap to avoid the drop. But with three more performances like this one, they should have a decent chance of staying up.
Mattias is ESPN FC's Arsenal correspondent. Follow him on Twitter: @MattiasKaren.