When Danny Welbeck came to the touchline at The Emirates on Saturday, ready to be introduced to liven up the stale fare Arsenal had thus far served up, there was a cheer of anticipation from the home crowd. This was partly because the England forward could only improve matters and partly because the fans assumed it would be Olivier Giroud making way.
When Alex Iwobi’s number was held up instead the cheers turned to groans and jeers on a day when the behaviour of the home support had been the story. Their half-baked, pre-match demonstration had been about as heated as the gazpacho they serve in the Emirates hospitality suites and the 12th-minute demo was shouted down and turned into a pro-Arsene Wenger song. However, there was certainly grumbling aplenty when Giroud was given a stay of execution, the striker not being afforded the same respect as his manager.
Of course, three minutes later, Giroud provided vindication of sorts for Wenger when he set up the winning goal for Welbeck that settled this scrappy match and gave Arsenal all three points and plunged Norwich into deeper relegation peril. It settled the game but will not placate the placard-wavers.
“You consider everybody up front when you don’t score,” Wenger reasoned afterwards. “But first I wanted to try something else. Giroud is a presence on crosses. We need him as well on set-pieces, and when our goalkeeper kicks the ball long. He wins many balls and keeps us in the opposition half.”
Giroud has now gone 15 league matches, or 891 minutes, without a goal, the longest run of his career without troubling the scorers. But Wenger was delighted with his assist. “He is a guy who is mentally strong,” the Arsenal manager said. “Today he gave an assist – I put that in the same category as a goal.”
Wenger did admit, though, that Giroud needs goals to improve his confidence although it looks like it will be Welbeck given the starting role at centre-forward for Arsenal’s final two league games as they look to secure a position in the top four and Champions League football next season.
“Welbeck came in and played very well,” Wenger said before explaining why he had been rested after his explosive return to the team following a long lay off due to injury. “Like always, the players who have been out for nine months (trust me, I know about those!) they come in they are super sharp and after that they suffer a little dip. Against Crystal Palace, Welbeck had a very average game, he looked a bit like he was paying for the physical energy he had given. So you let them rest one or two games and you bring them back in. Today, when he came on, you could see he was a different animal again.”
Wenger accepted that he would be criticised for his side’s failure in the league this season but admitted the mood in the ground was not as ugly as he had expected. “I can take that,” he said following the mixed bag or emotions on display at The Emirates. “I’m in a public job and I have to live with judgement – as long as it is respectful. I was told before kick-off that the whole stadium will be white [a reference to the pieces of paper being held up].
“We are here to give our best. We have been remarkably consistent at the top. We have disappointed people because we didn’t win the league. Believe me, we are disappointed as well, like any Arsenal fans. We have to come back and win it and that’s all we can do.
“I give my best for this club, You don’t spend 19 years at a club without giving every minute of your time – you give your whole life and you try to do as well as possible. One target is to keep 100 per cent of people happy. Unfortunately I didn’t manage to do that this season.”
For Norwich the battle in the league goes on after a weekend in which they lost ground on both Newcastle and Sunderland following defeat in a game in which they had the best chances. Their defender Seb Bassong bemoaned their finishing. “It’s just so frustrating,” the Frenchman said. “It’s the story of the year for us. We came here with a plan and we applied it well. But at some point, especially when you are fighting against relegation, we need to score. We had the chances. We just didn’t put it in. We will fight until the end.
“If you don’t think you’re capable of doing it, we’d rather stop right now. So let’s believe. We all believe.”