Preview: Norwich v Arsenal

Mark Robins, Grant Holt and Vieira’s left bollock: Dan Brigham gets nostalgic with sports journalist and Arsenal fan Alan Gardner, before getting the lowdown on the Gunners and finding out how on earth Norwich can win on Sunday 

Dan: Hi Alan. Delete as appropriate: Arsenal are having a great/terrible season, are nailed on/utterly unlikely to win the Premier League and Arsène Wenger is God/past it and needs sacking?

It seems a weird one to judge so far... beating Bayern Munich, getting smashed by Bayern Munich, beating Spurs and Man United, losing to Sheffield Wednesday and West Brom. What on earth is going on in north London?

Alan: Hey Dan. You've started with the big questions, then. No, ‘That Alexis Sánchez is decent, isn't he? Have another biscuit’.

Well, as things stand, I might risk splinters in my arse and take a seat on the fence. At least on the first two questions, anyway. We're bobbing along quite nicely in the league, two points off the top and almost through November – Wenger's bogey month, if you can have such a thing – while going out of the Capital One Cup (or whatever it's called these days) is no biggie. We never win it, however far we get. The Champions League has been disappointing – although we can still qualify after winning on Tuesday night – but at least if we bomb it might allow time to focus on the league and a much longed-for successor to the Invincibles title of 2004. And we're still FA Cup holders, so no drama there.

As for dear old Arsène, well, he's like your favourite dotty relative. You hope he's still got all of his billes but know that he won't be around forever. Frankly I find most Wengerisms endearing these days – ball-winning midfield enforcer? No, I'll have another subbuteo sprite for the collection, please – and I am hopeful we can eventually send him off on a high.

How's that for starters? I suppose you'll be wanting my position on string theory next?

Dan: String theory? Must've missed that in Inverting the Pyramid, but I imagine Jürgen Klopp will be trying to implement it at Liverpool. 

So let's take a little trip down memory lane. August 1992. Highbury. Opening day of the season. A stunt parachutist has missed the pitch and crashed behind the mural replacing the North Bank before kick-off. Arsenal at 2-0 up at half-time on the opening day of the season against Norwich. 

Sooo... what happened next? 

Alan: Here, let me Google that for you, Dan. One of only two wins over us in the Premier League era, I believe. But there was no shame, of course, in losing to that Norwich side. Gossy, Gunny, Foxy, not to mention Ian Crook... It all led on to the 93-94 Uefa Cup campaign and that unforgettable night in the Olympic Stadium. We were all football hipsters then.

Still, Arsenal's cup double assuaged any disappointment at finishing 10th in the Premier League's first season, and we picked up the European Cup Winners' Cup in ’94, too, even as plucky Norwich were putting East Anglia on the sporting map.

Has life ever been better for the Carrow Road faithful? And can Alex Neil hold a candle to Mike Walker?

Dan: Arsenal's cup double sealed Norwich's place in Europe, with former Norwich defender Andy Linighan scoring past former Norwich keeper Chris Woods to win the FA Cup final replay, sending us on our first European adventure.

That six-year period, when Norwich came 5th, 4th and 3rd will, will never be bettered. Not unless a Russian oligarch takes a bizarre interest in Norwich, buys us, makes us play in red, merges us with Ipswich and builds a 70,000-seater stadium on the Norfolk/Suffolk border. I think even the Ipswich fans would rather it was Alex Neil than Mick McCarthy managing the side... Neil has shades of Walker. Plenty of attacking instincts and a Plan B up his sleeve, but he isn't as revolutionary as Walker was.

Talking of glory years, you must miss the early- to mid-noughties when Wenger revolutionised English football with a combination of nippy two-touch football and brute force in central midfield. There was a time when small clubs likes Norwich coming up against Arsenal would be like pitting Del Boy's three-wheeler against a Monster Truck in a Demolition Derby.

These days, though, teams like Norwich face Arsenal knowing there's the chance of getting something out of the game. What's happened to Arsenal since they last won the title in 2003-04, and are you hopeful they'll be able to recapture that fearsome reputation any time soon?

Alan: Well, to be blunt, we've gone a bit soft. Per Mertesacker may be nicknamed the Big Fucking German but he's a fraction of a Tony Adams in the double-hard stakes; similarly, Francis Coquelin is an admirable little terrier but Patrick Vieira's left bollock (picture it) was more fearsome. There was a time – for some reason Martin Keown bawling into Ruud van Nistelrooy's face comes to mind – when Arsenal were considered one of the dirtiest teams in the league but now we're more likely to win the fairplay award.

Wenger signed Vieira, Manu Petit, even Nelson Vivas back in the day but the man brought in most recently to anchor the midfield was Everton's most creative player. Wenger might still get into the odd scuffle on the touchline but he seems less keen to see his gossamer footballing vision besmirched...

That said, we have toughened up a little bit over the last couple of seasons. Winning at Manchester City in January playing a savvy counterattacking game was huge, as was the 20-minute demolition of United a few weeks ago. Sánchez is football's equivalent of Ant-Man and even Mesut Özil is noticeably more tonk these days. If we can avoid major injuries (and maybe – gasp! – sign a couple of players in January), my optimism might finally be justified.

Anyway, since this is a Norwich website, I'm sure it's about time someone mentioned my namesake, Alan Partridge. You're welcome.

Dan: We've done 13 of these previews and you are the very first to mention Partridge. You win a sausage in a cup of beans for your troubles.

Tottenham look like they're starting to click into gear and look a real threat now – with Mauricio Pochettino turning Harry Kane, Dele Alli and Eric Dier into young English talents. I heard someone on 5 Live – so blame them if this is wrong – say that Arsenal are the only team Spurs haven't finished above in the Premier League era. Are you worried about them this season, especially as they're only two points behind? And is there a bit of envy among Arsenal fans at Kane, Alli and Dier after Walcott, Wilshere and Oxlade-Chamberlain have seen injuries blight their progress?

As an aside, thank goodness Ryan Mason is no longer getting into the Spurs first XI. He is shite.

Alan: Ah ha! I'll take that.

I'm sure you draw a diverse crowd here, so for everyone's benefit, I'll explain St Totteringham's day. Spurs have finished above Arsenal – back in that first PL season and then a couple of years later – but not since our boys swapped getting steamed for steaming their vegetables under Wenger.

St T's marks the date in the season when Tottenham can no longer catch us. There have been a few notable close shaves in recent years but I don't tend to worry about how the Spuds are doing. They are their own worst enemies, really, and put here to make Arsenal fans feel good about themselves (I really hope this doesn't come back to bite me in six months).

Kane is annoyingly quite decent – even more so since I transferred him out of my fantasy team, after sticking with him for ages, and he has scored seven in four games – and was supposedly an Arsenal fan growing up. But he'll get bought by a bigger club before too long.

I don't really have a strong view on Mason, though. Did he screw the pooch on loan for Norwich?

Dan: Kane – he’s probably better than Giroud, isn't he. Plus I don't think he ever was an Arsenal fan, he had trials for them but has always been a Spud. Mason – no grievance. He's just your typical overrated English midfielder, for whom running around aimlessly is mistaken for heart and passion.

Right. Sunday. How much will that defeat to West Brom and Coquelin's injury affect Arsenal? Are we likely to see a backlash or a nervous side? And who’s going to replace Coquelin as the holding midfielder? QUESTIONS.

Alan: As we've already gone down the road of half-overheard statistics, I'm going to say I think Giroud has one of the best goals-per-minute ratios since he came to the Premier League and leave it there. Plus, he's a damn handsome fellow.

It looks like Mathieu Flamini will fill in for Coquelin, although I've heard Calum Chambers' name mentioned. In normal circumstances, I don't think Carrow Road would be the most intimidating place to go but it is still November and we have been a bit up and down, as you referred to earlier. Fingers crossed Sánchez's brace in the Dinamo Zagreb game heralds a timely return to form.

Thinking about it, ‘normal for Arsenal’ is a bit like ‘normal for Norfolk’, isn't it? Something odd is always on the cards.

Dan: Giroud is a damn handsome fellow. But is he as handsome as Graziano Pellé? No he is not. 

I'm assuming ‘normal for Arsenal’ may well be similar to ‘normal for Norfolk’ but, with you being in north London, it probably features more ridiculous bicycles, people wearing glasses for no medical reason and collecting vinyl without ever listening to it. 

Sánchez and Özil are terrific, aren't they? It's great to see Özil looking as good as he did for the first couple of months of his Arsenal's career. It must be a joy to support a team with those two. Thinking of Norwich’s defence trying to cope with them is giving me nightmares – the kind in which you're being chased by a roaring megatruck and you slowly get smaller and smaller and you wake up just before it squashes you. Or maybe that's just me. 

How do you expect Arsenal to line up on Sunday, and are there any weaknesses Norwich's can look to exploit? 

Alan: Let's move on from considering that chiseled pair, before we start grappling like Oliver Reed and Alan Bates in Women in Love.

Sánchez and Özil are a couple of smooth operators, for sure, though West Brom just about managed to shut them down. I suppose Norwich's defence isn't Tony Pulis tight, though? Guess it'll be the usual 4-2-3-1, with Giroud leading the line and possibly Joel Campbell providing support to the aforementioned duo – though Aaron Ramsey is getting back to fitness, so he may play.

As for weaknesses, you have the usual options to pick from: a susceptibility from set pieces, possibility of a Big Man Up Top bullying the centre-halves, a porous midfield that's often left exposed by everyone going forward at once.

Are Norwich equipped to target any of those? I get the impression that Neil has built a neat-and-tidy ball-playing side... which is just the sort of opposition I'd prefer for us to play when confidence is a bit shaky. And there's no Grant Holt , who scored the winner in this fixture three years ago.

Dan: We were made to watch Women in Love at sixth form several times. Our (female) English teacher was very keen on that scene.

Our defence is generally more gaping than tight, but we have conceded only three in our last three games – and two of those matches were away at Man City and Chelsea. We were promoted playing attacking possession football, and started this season doing the same. But our performances weren't getting the results they merited, so Neil has (reluctantly and pragmatically but mildly depressingly) changed our approach. We played five at the back at Man City and have started setting up to allow the opposition the ball and hit them on the break. I imagine there'll be more of the same against Arsenal and, to be fair – as you mentioned – it worked for Chris Hughton when we last beat your chaps. That was part of a 10-game unbeaten run we went on. Weird times.

Right, let's finish off with three quickies: Where do you think Arsenal will finish, where do you think Norwich will finish and what's your score prediction for Sunday?

Alan: Well, let's hope for some fantasy football on both sides and a real treat for Delia. I think Arsenal will finish second to Man City, sadly; as for Norwich, let's be optimistic and say 14th. I like to see East Anglia representing in the PL, even better if Ipswich are up, too. Which brings me to my favourite Norwich memory, beyond even Goss's volley at the Olympic Stadium – Rob Ullathorne's backpass to Bryan Gunn in 1996.

Anyway, having endeared myself to everyone, I'll go with 2-1 to Arsenal at the weekend.

Dan: First Partridge. Then Delia. And, just when you think you’re done, that backpass. I expected better of you, Alan, I really did (I didn’t).

Against my better judgement, I have one of those niggly, wiggly ear worms telling me Norwich are going to win on Sunday. I’ve tried my best to ignore it but, balls to it, I’m giving in and predicting a 1-0 Norwich win.

Alan Gardner is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo who used to know a bit about football when he worked on the sports desk at The Guardian. You can follow him on Twitter at @alanroderick

 

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