One-Nil to the Arsenal seems like an apt score to mark the 125th anniversary of the club, although there is an argument it doesn’t really represent the Arsene Wenger era.
This game was anything but typical though. David Moyes took a surprisingly brave approach and attacked Arsenal from the kick-off. Everton were pushing as many as four players forward to challenge for the second ball from their well-directed long punts. These players did try to drop back when the ball was lost but it gave Arsenal a great deal of space to play with.
Often there is a fine line between bravery and stupidity. Some would argue Arsenal’s wastefulness in the first half kept the Everton manager on the brave side of the fence but it could easily have been disastrous for the visitors. At the other end, the Gunners showed a remarkable improvement in attacking the long ball and in dealing with the second ball/crosses. It was by no means perfect but one hardly sensed any panic or hesitation at the back.
Ultimately, this game boiled down to Arsenal taking one of their chances and/or making a mistake at the back. With the sublime, unstoppable talent of Van Persie at one end and a cohesive, confident defensive unit at the other, the result was secured, albeit with a few tense moments.
The first half was frustrating for Arsenal. A number of opportunities to play a teammate in behind were missed. Despite that the Gunners got clear regularly. When they did, either the final ball was lacking or the finish lacked the required quality.
In the 15th minute, Theo was clean through and did well to square it for Ramsey/Gervinho (I strongly believe the commentators were daft to suggest he should have shot himself). His teammates should have attacked the ball better but a defender was able to sneak between them to make a sliding, last-gasp interception.
Five minutes later Van Persie strayed off-side in a 2-v-1. Indeed, the number of off-sides showed that the Arsenal machine was just a bit out of tune. Van Persie too was struggling with a number of his touches.
Just before the half hour mark, excellent physical strength by Song and a well-executed through-ball put Ramsey in behind. The Welshman’s shot on the turn went just over.
The Gunners also won a number of corners as defenders got desperate blocks in. They didn’t result in goals but I would say they weren’t wasted as badly as we have seen in the past. Vermaelen in particular, always looked like a threat.
I don’t know whether Moyes realized he was flirting with fire or for some other reason, Everton did take a more conservative approach to the second half. Arsenal weren’t getting as much space in behind but also didn’t have to deal with as many balls in their defensive third.
Walcott, who had been the biggest threat in the first half, continued to torment the visitors in the second. A first-time volley across the face of goal set Van Persie up but the Dutchman couldn’t guide the ball towards goal. Then he forced a save from Howard after utilizing space and speed to beat a couple of defenders.
At this point it’s worth noting that Leighton Baines really struggled against Walcott. Many people have been caught up by the hype created by the largely ignorant English media. Baines is a very good player but he rarely has to defend the flank on his own because Everton usually get bodies behind in the big games. I am yet to see enough evidence that he can perform that role for a big team where he’d have to defend large spaces against quality wingers. Arsenal’s left-backs occasionally appear to be poor because of an odd mistake but they make the many difficult parts of the game look so easy. Furthermore, Baines wasn’t really effective in attack despite a number of quality balls into the box because that attacking approach itself is so inefficient. Even though Everton are set-up to put and attack crosses into the box, they rarely looked like scoring.
Coming back to the game, the visitors sustained a spell of pressure in the 65th to 69th minute period but the Gunners were getting the bodies in the right areas to challenge for the balls into the box. Wenger was preparing to introduce Arshavin and Rosicky when the goal came from almost nowhere.
Arteta found Song in some space just inside the Everton half. The visitors backed off and allowed the Cameroonian the opportunity to move forward and pick a pass. Fabregas would have been proud of the chip that Song produced. Any striker in the history of the game would be proud of the finish Van Persie delivered. A first-time volley, that hit the corner giving the Keeper no chance, to a ball dropping over his shoulder while moving away from the defender to create space – impeccable, exquisite, emphatic.
After the goal Arsenal eased off but didn’t switch off. That was the difference between a point and three. Everton pushed forward and created a number of half-chances but their night was well summarized by a simple stat – 0 shots on target.
Szczesny: Caught the balls that he came for, didn’t have a save to make, could have come for a couple of other crosses that he left for the defenders but it’s better to be confident with one approach than getting caught in between.
Djourou: Very respectable effort on the right. Didn’t offer much in attack but that gave Theo greater room on the right. Won 6 of his 8 duels and performed a steady tactical function.
Mertesacker: He has this invisible giant kind of approach that contrasts the all-action style of his partner very well. Only gets involved when he has to and did get a couple of vital touches to thwart dangerous situations. Kept things simple and moved the ball well for the rest of the game (best passing accuracy). Also swept well winning possession in the defensive third most often.
Koscielny: Won 8 of his 12 duels. Was the proactive central defender. Made the most touches – 90 – and was confident on the ball (most passes 68/79) and got tight on his man in and around the box which denied opportunities for free headers.
Vermaelen: Everton tried to target him, partly also because they had Coleman on that side. That meant Vermaelen had the most tackles and duels which he excelled at winning 3 of the 4 tackles and 11 of the 17 duels including a crucial header in the box. He too didn’t get forward that often, although he did try more in the second half, but handled pressure well and was able to make tough passes in tight spaces.
I thought the back five were alert, confident, well-organized, and played for and with each other. Given that two centre-backs were playing out of position – and clearly a perceived weakness Everton tried to exploit – this was a very encouraging defensive display. The technical quality of the players and their positional play also deserves immense credit.
Song: His passing (77% accuracy) wasn’t at the level we are used to but that was probably down to the fact that he was pushing forward and trying a number of defence splitting passes. This is clear from his 27 attempted passes in the final third, by far the most in the side. Created an excellent chance for Ramsey and picked up a sumptuous assist to justify the manager’s tactic of pushing him forward. Defensive work to go with the attacking bursts was commendable.
Ramsey: Made a number of very good runs but needs to be more aggressive (Walcott’s square pass) and finish better (Song’s through-ball). I also thought some of his passes were delayed a bit that led to off-sides. Can improve his decision making. Was invovled in a number of duels (13) but won less than half (4).
Arteta: Played the ball that put Walcott through early on. Also got the pre-assist for the goal. Very efficient with his passing (although a couple of mistakes that could have been dangerous spring to mind) and completed 19 of his 20 passes in the final third. Won 8 out of 12 duels and 2 of the three tackles.
I believe it’s fair to say the Arsenal midfielders are doing the job of 4 players, 3.5 at least. They are always around the ball – this demands a phenomenal work rate as they have to make runs to join the attack and track back to support the midfield. Song and Arteta were again immense. Ramsey is thereabouts but needs some fine tuning to get there.
Walcott: MotM in my opinion even though he didn’t get the assist or the goal. Was a constant threat down the right. Unlucky not to get at least an assist. Forced a good save but could also have done better with a left-footed strike that went well over.
Van Persie: Was a tad off colour in the first half. The movement was there but the touch wasn’t. Shooting wasn’t in keeping with his current form. It came back in the second period. Goal should be in the strikes of the season. Work rate was good and he helped the midfield by dropping deep regularly.
Gervinho: Looked good on the ball but was regularly double-teamed on the edge of the box. Should learn to cut inside and shoot better. Must also develop a better understanding with teammates in and around the box.
The front three could have done better in terms of their decision making and in hitting the target. They will not get as much space in many games.
Subs: Rosicky was tidy on the ball and moved well. Showed good understanding with Van Persie in the box. Miquel looked assured but wasn’t really tested. Frimpong just got a few minutes.
Wenger: Got good value out of a makeshift back four. The players could have done with a bit more functionality on the counter-attack as a number of off-side and other issues could have been avoided if the teammates had been on the same page. With the current approach they will have to play together for a long time to get that understanding and it will be lost if there are a few injuries. But it’s a delicate balance as it shouldn’t become too functional like Everton were.
In the end it was a well-deserved clean sheet and a great goal that earned the Gunners three points and a spot in the top four, at least temporarily. A week long break should help in recharging the batteries before the critical holiday period.