That was something different, wasn’t it?! After a record run of come-from-behind victories, Arsenal showed they could also hold on to a lead under pressure against a side that had a very good home record in recent weeks.
This was a curious game in many ways. Arsene started with Ramsey and that too on the left side of the attack. It would seem Le Boss is serious about reverting to last season’s tactic of using a ball-playing midfielder on one flank instead of two direct wingers, at least for the away games.
It was a starting eleven that raised some eyebrows but the Gunners came out firing and killed any debate on that before it could even start. In the opening 25-30 minutes or so Wenger’s men produced some of the best combination plays that we’ve seen all season. The players were interchanging positions seamlessly, their understanding was almost telepathic, and Everton looked like they didn’t know what hit them.
Few would have been surprised if the score had been 0-3 at the half-hour mark. But it wasn’t. From a corner, Vermaelen scored what proved to be the match-winner, but Ramsey’s miss and a couple of vital blocks kept the hosts within touching distance.
And somewhere in the middle of the first half the game began to change. It’s difficult to say the exact moment when this change came about but a few factors made a difference. Moyes pushed Fellaini higher up the pitch and pulled Cahill deeper after his team had conceded. The Blues also started getting tighter on their man. Arsenal’s inability to add to the lead must also have given them some confidence. By the half-hour mark the game was a different beast altogether.
Arsenal’s combinations weren’t working as well. While earlier they were opening Everton up at will, now the Gunners were struggling to get past the midfield. Fellaini on the other hand was getting more and more involved, bringing Pienaar and Baines into play quite effectively down their left hand side.
Since the transition happened over time and it’s tough to pin-point to one moment, I have roughly selected the half-hour mark to compare some stats. The following table make the distinction fairly clear.
Legend: A-FTP: Total passes attempted in Final Third. S-FTP: Successful Final Third Passes(%). TS: total shots. A-TP: Total Passes attempted. S-TP: Successful Total Passes(%).
As a matter of fact, Arsenal completed more Final Third passes (62) in the opening half-hour than they did in the remainder of the game (59), which was at least twice that amount of time. They also completed 212 passes in total in the first 30 minutes as against 217 in the other 60+. No surprise then that they managed 8 shots in the initial burst but only 6 in the rest of the game.
In contrast, Everton only managed 1 shot in the opening half-hour and it’s not hard to see why. They only succeeded with 26 passes in the Final third in that period but more than doubled that (63) in the other hour or so which led to 6 shots on the Arsenal goal.
Essentially, the game became a lot more even. Both sides saw a drop in their passing success as there were a lot more duels. For Arsenal this was a lot more noticeable. The pressure from Everton also forced Arsenal into a number of long balls. The Gunners attempted only 7 long balls in the first 30 minutes but another 33 in the next hour. While the other passing numbers took a big hit, this was the only related stat that showed a remarkable jump.
The ball was hoofed up the pitch regularly but returned within moments. This created an impression of pressure, and the raucous atmosphere added to it – Kudos to the home fans, but the next interesting fact tells its own story.
Everton only managed one shot on target in the whole game. It’s been a problem for them all through this season as they’ve played a number of games where the opposition Keeper hasn’t had to make a save. A significant reason could be their reliance on wing play and crosses which are easy to cut out and are an inefficient attacking weapon, relatively speaking. Ironically, even if a tad harsh on the hosts, it would mean they were too one-dimensional in their attacking approach – a criticism usually leveled at Arsenal.
The Gunners too were not very efficient with their shooting as only 4 of their 14 attempts forcing a save. Of course, the Blues also protected their goal well with 5 blocks including a couple of vital ones early in the game. Ironically again, it was Arsenal who scored from a cross/corner!
In the interest of fairness it must also be said that the hosts had a perfectly legitimate goal ruled off-side. It’s hard to say whether that would have changed the result of the game. Everton fans will argue that their side would have gained in confidence but one must not forget Arsenal have responded superbly after conceding in recent games. At the other end, Rosicky too had a very good penalty should denied. All-in-all this will probably go down as one of the worst refereeing (including the assistants) performances of the season.
As expected most of the play was down one flank. For Everton Baines had the most touches, 72, followed by Pienaar with 63. In contrast Hibbert and Drenthe only managed 46 and 27 respectively. Arsenal too were keen to play through the right. Sagna had the most touches for the Gunners with 109. Koscielny also pushed out towards the touchline when the full-back went forward and the central defender had the second highest (90) touches. This included the most attempted and completed passes.
Arsenal had an interesting style of play at the back. Vermaelen usually held his position in a central area slightly towards the left. But Koscielny often moved all the way towards the touchline. Song or Arteta dropped between the two of them when the pressure was high. Arsenal were clearly more comfortable playing out through the right, as they’ve been for most of the season if I’m not mistaken. It’s was a bit surprising because Ramsey offered a good technical outlet on the left. Perhaps it was because the Welshman hasn’t played in that role before and the players naturally gravitated towards the area they’ve used before and are relatively more comfortable in. It’s understandable that instincts kick in when the pressure is high. But over the longer term one would hope the Gunners will develop other ways of bringing the ball out.
Arsenal’s back-line also deserves credit for its impeccable discipline that caught the visitors off-side on 10 occasions, often thwarting dangerous situations from developing further. Here too, there can be some questions raised about the officiating, certainly for the disallowed goal, but I haven’t seen the replays of most of the incidents from the appropriate angle so will give the assistants the benefit of the doubt.
On the whole this was a tough test for the Gunners, as one would expect at a venue like Goodison Park, and they did enough to secure the points. There were some breathtaking moves early on but mostly it was about fighting for the result. Just ask City, Spurs, or Chelsea what they’d give for a win away to Everton.
Szczesny: Was largely untroubled despite the intensity of the game. Distribution has improved a lot and it seems to be the result of some dedicated work on the training ground, particularly the balls out to Sagna. Had one iffy moment when his attempted chip towards Koscielny hit the striker but faultless except that.
Sagna: As noted earlier was the player with the most touches as he was constantly involved with the play up and down the flank. Won 14 of his 17 aerial duels, many of which were long balls from Szczesny. Also engaged in a stunning 27 ground duels winning 18 of those. As an aside, his opposing winger Pienaar won 1/10 Aerial duels and 4/23 Ground duels. Also made a team high 4 interceptions while winning 2 of his 3 tackles. Sagna’s performance was also one of the main reasons why Everton couldn’t convert their pressure – which was largely on that side of the pitch – into something more meaningful. MotM in my book.
Koscielny: He too saw a lot of the ball and made good use of it. Made a number of vital interceptions and clearances, and a couple of very interesting forward bursts with the ball.
Vermaelen: Wasn’t far behind his defensive compatriots in the passing stakes. Also made a number of crucial clearances and blocks. His forward runs and movement in the box are always a threat and, apart from the goal, he did produce a couple of testing crosses.
Gibbs: Does have a tendency to get caught up the pitch and the off-side goal was partially his fault. In some ways he’s still learning on the job as this is a tricky position. Wasn’t as involved as Sagna but did show the ability to take on and beat his man in the attacking areas. Won 3 of his 4 take-ons and 6 of his 8 ground duels. Also did a good job defensively for most of the game when he was in his position. A number of important headers/touches in or around the box stand out in memory.
I wouldn’t call this a great defensive performance as a unit but the back five were very, very good. Vermaelen and Koscielny seem to be developing a very good understanding and it’s good to see they’re taking responsibility in the box instead of waiting for the Keeper to come and bail them out.
Song: It was a more controlled effort from the Cameroonian and he did his bit in helping the defence with 5 tackles (3 successful), 2 interceptions, 12 ground duels (9 successful) and 3 clearances. The moment at the end when he took the ball to the corner was commendable.
Arteta: Nowhere near his usual near-perfect standards but still a solid shift from the player visiting a ground where he’s given a lot over the years. Kept the ball ticking but wasn’t able to influence the game as much. Another midfielder who provided good defensive support with 2 interceptions, 4 tackles (3 successful) and 9 ground duels (6 successful).
Rosicky: Was quite influential in the attacking areas and made the most passes for Arsenal in the Final Third. Didn’t have too many individual battles but work rate was good and offered himself to receive passes that relieved the pressure.
The midfielders were in complete command in the opening half-hour but they had to dig deep for the rest of the game. It was an industrious and battling display that helped the back four. I’m not convinced about the positions they take up at times but that’s a complicated discussion.
Walcott: Theo wasn’t as influential as he has been in recent weeks. Baines did a good job of marking him tightly. Everton also cut out the through-balls quite efficiently which took away his strength of getting in behind.
RvP: Finishing was not at the current otherworldly level. Work rate was again superb, dropped deep regularly in the opening half-hour. Also made a good contribution in the box while defending set-pieces.
Ramsey: He played as an auxiliary midfielder rather than a winger. Had the most shots of all the players and showed exceptional ability to take up dangerous positions in the box. Finishing will improve over time. Saw a lot of the ball and his movement created interesting angles early on and opened up passing opportunities later in the game when the side was under pressure. Decent defensive shift as well.
The front three were threatening in the initial phase of dominance but it reduced over time. Still the movement and understanding up front was encouraging.
Subs: Gervinho put in a decent shift running up and down the flank and showed good composure on the ball. Djourou had very little time on the pitch.
Wenger: Looks like he’s working on some tactical tweaks. In recent weeks we have seen the reintroduction of a midfielder on the flank, the long ball out to Sagna, Walcott making more runs in the inside channel and central areas, and so on. Has also created or facilitated a good spirit in the squad which is coming out in every game. Furthermore, small details like taking Walcott out towards the end and putting Ramsey on Baines show he’s always involved and reading the situation.Follow @goonerdesi