LONDON — The revolution has to start somewhere. Mikel Arteta included five of his six summer signings from the outset and although Arsenal laboured to a 1-0 victory against Norwich City, a team likely to battle relegation this season, this was an important win in the Spaniard’s ongoing battle to win hearts and minds.
Arteta was the central figure in the Gunners’ £140 million summer recruitment strategy, pushing for particular targets and meeting face-to-face with players to convince them of his vision for the future.
It was therefore significant that a quintet of new arrivals made his starting lineup here — only Nuno Tavares left out as the former Benfica defender was bought as an understudy to Kieran Tierney — with Aaron Ramsdale getting the nod ahead of Bernd Leno in goal.
As ESPN reported on Aug. 20, Ramsdale was acquired at considerable expense — a fee that could reach £32m — in the belief this could be Leno’s final season in north London, yet the changing of the guard was not expected this early. Ben White and Takehiro Tomiyasu were included in a four-man defence, with Albert Sambi Lokonga in midfield and Martin Odegaard operating as a No. 10 behind matchwinner Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang in attack.
Thomas Partey and Emile Smith Rowe were only fit enough for the bench but otherwise this was as close to the team Arteta has wanted to pick for some time, given the COVID-19 issues, fitness problems and late business Arsenal conducted in the window. Emirates Stadium can often be a capricious place and despite Arteta delivering the 2020 FA Cup, many are reserving judgement over whether the 39-year-old can take the Gunners back toward the Champions League places. But here they stayed with the team throughout a hard-fought win.
Confidence was understandably low after three successive Premier League defeats at Brentford, Chelsea and Manchester City but after Aubameyang scored from close range with 24 minutes remaining, Arteta was visibly moved by the big decisions he has taken in recent months producing the first green shoots like this.
“I must say that probably it has been the best 10 to 15 days I have ever had since I have been in football,” said Arteta, which is quite the statement given the success he enjoyed during three years coaching under Pep Guardiola at Manchester City. “I am not saying they were the easiest, they were the best.
“You have to find a purpose, why do what you do and why you are a football player or a coach. It is about the relationships we have built, the level of trust. Emotionally, how players react, how everybody in the team, every department of the club, supports and tries to be positive around the situation. You have to win football matches but it was an absolute joy to watch how everyone was behaving.
“What I am describing is probably what you guys don’t see, what is happening internally. And then I have doubts, I have question marks because obviously I had to read, I had to understand, I had to reflect a little bit on different opinions and criticism and I don’t know how much they are going to be affected.
“I think the club has been extremely open in trying to send a message across of what we are trying to do and I have question marks. I have to be honest. But I just saw incredible fans trying to inspire the team, trying to tell them ‘we are ready to suffer with you and we are going to support you.’ The rest, it doesn’t matter. I am extremely grateful.
“I got pretty emotional to see that because I think people maybe were expecting something, they want to go another road, try to transmit hate or whatever, it wasn’t the case at all. So, thank you so much.”
Arsenal will have to improve in the coming weeks because this wasn’t always an easy watch. They started brightly with pace and purpose but without much of an attacking plan beyond the lively Lokonga trying to release Aubameyang in behind Norwich’s slightly high defensive line.
The home side registered just one shot on target in the first half — a speculative long-range effort from Lokonga — and although they improved after the interval, with Brandon Williams making a brilliant 57th-minute block to deny Nicolas Pepe, Norwich’s openness played into their hands.
Perhaps it was only when Partey and Smith Rowe were introduced that Arsenal found the invention in their passing again to break the deadlock. Partey’s quick forward pass triggered a move which ended with Pepe curling a shot off one post before battling Brandon Williams to meet the rebound. It ricocheted back onto Pepe off the opposite post, ultimately playing Aubameyang onside and allowing him to turn the ball home from inside the six-yard box.
The goal survived a VAR check because Aubameyang was behind the ball when it hit Pepe after coming back off the post.
Norwich goalkeeper Tim Krul made two fine stops on shots from Aubameyang and Smith Rowe. At the other end, Teemu Pukki had a couple of late chances to steal an equaliser but Arsenal hung on for a win which gave Arteta a degree of validation — and something to build on at Burnley next week. Victory is required there too, but at least the pressure valve is released a little for now.