Sanchez shows the strain as Gunners slip
Norwich City1 Arsenal 1
Arsene Wenger rolled the dice and lost. You could argue the toss as to whether this was a point gained or two surrendered by his title-chasing team in an away-day ambush at Carrow Road. Much harder to quantify is the injury curse that recurred to haunt Arsenal, with first Laurent Koscielny and then Alexis Sanchez limping off to darken the mood further following a stirring Norwich comeback.
Koscielny, Arsenal's most important defender, lasted only 14 minutes before pulling up sharply with a hip injury. And then on the hour, the moment Wenger had been dreading for weeks, the great Sanchez made one run too many in an exhausting November and reared up with a hamstring injury.
Wenger knew Sanchez was running on empty after a brutal round trip to Chile. He talked repeatedly about the need to rest him but gambled on finding the right window.
Perhaps a windy, wet afternoon in Norwich was it. But the short-term desire for three points won out, as it always does. And so Wenger is left to calculate how best to overcome the loss of the player he can least afford to be without.
"I don't regret playing Sanchez. Players are there to, not to be rested," the Frenchman said in contradiction of the position previously held. "He says it was a kick on the hamstring, but I fear that is not the reality. No one is scientifically developed enough to predict when a player needs a rest. We checked him in the week and there was no problem.
"Koscielny could not move. It was a kick on the hip. [Santi] Cazorla has a knee ligament issue that got worse. There are plenty of players across Europe that play in every game. At the moment we are a bit short, so I can take a gamble on one."
That does not look such a good idea now. The result against a Norwich team that might have taken all three points in a vibrant second half means Arsenal have shipped seven points in their last three domestic games. And they face Big Sam's rampant Sunderland next. Well, that might be overstating the case for Allardyce's team, but two wins on the spin is progress at the Stadium of Light.
Injuries apart, it looked to be going to plan when Arsenal went ahead on the half-hour through Mesut Ozil. The ball had been theirs to do with as they pleased and, with Aaron Ramsey in the thick of it for the first time in six weeks, Wenger was entitled to feel happy with himself.
The goal was archetypal Arsenal, Sanchez robbing Gary O'Neil after a poor clearance from John Ruddy left the Norwich captain awfully compromised in the middle of his own half. Sanchez slipped the ball through to the advancing Ozil, who finished beautifully with his left foot.
Norwich could no longer rely on picking pockets. Their first shot at goal finally came via Robbie Brady five minutes before the break. Petr Cech, springing to his left to save two-handed, was grateful for the workout in the Arsenal goal. Two minutes later, he was picking the ball out of the net, Lewis Grabban coolly slotting home Brady's angled pass on his return to the team. Only Wes Hoolahan knows how he did not give Norwich the lead in first-half added time, scooping Andre Wisdom's whipped cross over the bar from inside the six-yard box. Arsenal had been warned.
The second half bore no relation to the first with Norwich, prompted by the irrepressible Brady, increasingly threatening. A brilliant save from Cech after Gabriel had diverted Martin Olsson's cross off the back of his head towards the bottom corner kept Norwich at bay. From the resultant corner, Jonny Howson hooked narrowly over the bar, and in a frantic finale Gabriel cleared off the line a dangerous cross from Olsson. The Norwich manager, Alex Neil, was left with a feeling of what might have been. "We set up to frustrate Arsenal, to limit gaps and spaces. In recent weeks we have been solid but without having possession to relieve pressure. I tried to make changes today and I felt we did that."
The return of Grabban, who absconded from the team hotel in August after being left out of the team, proved decisive.
"We created opportunities to score against a real good team," Neil added. "Lewis hasn't been involved. I wanted ball retention and work rate, he gave me that.
"There is no problem with him. He accepted the punishment and moved on. He has been working hard for five or six weeks to get back. I thought this game would suit his attributes and that's what happened. As the game went on I thought we could go on and win. If any team was going to win it, it was us and it would have been merited."
On the plus side for Wenger, Ramsey lasted 70 minutes and his replacement, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, looked hungry for work after five weeks out.
"It was a difficult game against a Norwich side at the top level physically, focused and organised," Wenger said.
"In the first half we faced 10 players in our own half. At 1-0, we dropped a little and let them back in the game. In the second half we had to dig deep. We were jaded.
"It was a bad afternoon on the injury front. We lost Sanchez and Koscielny, and Cazorla finished on one leg."