Out-run and out-thought by a Norwich team fighting for their Premier League survival, Arsène Wenger’s new-model side seldom shifted above second gear as they succumbed to a tepid defeat that contained worrying echoes of the recent past.
Undone by a mistake by Vito Mannone, their third-string goalkeeper, they remain caught in the torment of transition.
None of the signals of change, so noticeable earlier in the campaign, could be detected as Arsenal fell to a first flaky loss on the road. It was telling, indeed, that the most creative player on the pitch was Norwich’s effervescent Wes Hoolahan.
“We missed what makes success at the top level and that is complete focus,” Wenger lamented.
What made the ordeal worse for the Arsenal manager is that it was all so preventable. Norwich took their first-half lead courtesy of a grisly lapse by the Italian Mannone, who could not control Alex Tettey’s shot and allowed Grant Holt to pounce.
“I do not blame the goalkeeper,” Wenger said. “We made many mistakes and the performances were not good enough.”
Arsenal looked lethargic, as if struggling to regain any cohesion after the international break. Despite the restoration of Jack Wilshere to their bench after his protracted exile, they face urgent improvement before confronting Schalke in Wednesday night’s Champions League encounter.
For Norwich, stirred by the tireless performances from Holt and Hoolahan, there was only blissful satisfaction. Manager Chris Hughton, somewhat beleaguered before this first league win of the season, acknowledged: “I could not be more pleased for the team.”
There were the usual touches of neat one-touch interplay from Arsenal, as Cazorla and Olivier Giroud set up the early shot that Lukas Podolski flashed fractionally wide, but any finishing touch was conspicuous by its absence.
Given their own mounting predicament, Norwich scented blood. All it required was a straightforward effort from Tettey, which Mannone spilled, straight into the path of Holt. The roar detonated by the striker’s quick-thinking goal could have been heard across the county line in Suffolk.
There was a time, only this summer, when Holt was agitating for a transfer away from Norwich. But the acclaim that washed over him here served as a reminder of how desperate those in yellow and green were to keep hold of their prize asset.
If Norwich’s energy was surprising, then so was Arsenal’s lack of attacking thrust. Gervinho looked curiously toothless, while even the superlatively talented Cazorla was struggling to weight his passes.
Most out of sorts was Mannone, who seemed every inch Arsenal’s third-choice goalkeeper on this evidence. His error in gifting the home side the advantage seriously unsettled him, and he panicked again, backing off from Holt and enabling the Norwich target man to slide a cross enticingly into the six-yard box. Mercifully for Wenger’s players, nobody was on the receiving end.
More danger followed when Anthony Pilkington flighted a corner to the far post, inviting Michael Turner, who ought at least to have steered his header on target.
Arsenal’s mistakes were almost vaudeville material. When Gervinho, teed up by Mikel Arteta, struck fresh air with his attempted volley, pantomime jeers rang out. Wenger’s agonised Basil Fawlty look, for two months suppressed due to his team’s highly encouraging start to the season, could be glimpsed once more.
Hughton, meanwhile, could scarcely conceal his delight. Javier Garrido floated in a fabulous cross, although this time Andre Santos just did enough to put Holt off his header. At the other end, Giroud resembled a large animal on ice, putting his bicycle kick embarrassingly wide.
Aiming to force a change in momentum, Wenger brought on Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, but the substitute lasted a mere nine minutes before being taken off with an apparent hamstring strain. He was replaced by Andrei Arshavin, the most maddeningly ineffectual member of Arsenal’s squad.
This was a deeply frustrating evening for all of an Arsenal persuasion, even if Gervinho et al did try to muster a belated riposte. First Arteta attempted a dig from distance, which Ruddy only partly dealt with as Per Mertesacker prepared to follow up. Then Gervinho, was denied only by Sebastian Bassong’s superb block.
Norwich were hunkering down for the resistance as the support from the 25,000-plus crowd reached deafening volume. It was not the prettiest way to record a maiden league victory of the season, but it was magnificently effective.
Norwich (4-5-1): Ruddy; Martin, Turner, Bassong, Garrido; Bennett, Tettey, Johnson, Pilkington, Hoolahan; Holt.
Subs: Rudd (g), Snodgrass, Howson, Jackson, Surman, Morison, Bennett.
Arsenal (4-2-3-1): Mannone; Jenkinson, Mertesacker, Vermaelen, Santos; Arteta, Ramsey; Gervinho, Santi Cazorla, Podolski; Giroud.
Subs: Martinez (g), Wilshere, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Djourou, Coquelin, Arshavin, Gnabry.
Referee: L Probert (Wiltshire).