Wojciech Szczesny reckons this game at Goodison Park is a six-pointer. It’s been a while since the Gunners have played games of such significance against Everton, but this season it looks like the two clubs are battling (with some others you might say) for one of the Champions League spots.
The Toffees started the season well. We’re through a third of the season already and they’ve been in or around the top four during all that time. That must have been a pleasant change for the Everton faithful as the Blues have shown a tendency to finish strongly in recent years after disappointing starts. But there will also be some concern among the fans as Moyes’ side has only won one of their last seven League games, drawing five and losing the other.
I have found their style of play rather enjoyable this season. It seems to be a mix of the classic British approach and the modern technical style. They are a physical team and often rely on the use of the long ball to gain territory but it would be extremely harsh to label them as long-ball merchants. Fellaini provides an excellent target for the long ‘passes’ and has the ability to win the duels and hold possession. He tends to do this slightly towards their left flank about 10-15 yards inside the opposition half, sometimes further forward.
After gaining territory, the Toffees change their style to a short passing, combination-oriented football with high intensity and impressive pressing urgency when possession is lost. They have many technically adept players, particularly on the left and in attack. The likes of Pienaar, Baines, Fellaini, Jelavic, and others have produced some fascinating moves this season through quick passing, fluid movement, and telepathic understanding.
At the same time, they also retain the ability to go wide and put balls into the box. The physical qualities of Fellaini, Jelavic, and Co. have proven handy in the box, although that style of play remains inherently inefficient.
Off-the-ball Everton have shown genuine desire to win it back early and high up the pitch, particularly against the smaller clubs. This has made many of their games extremely exciting to watch.
The side is also well-drilled in positional play and can frustrate opponents by making it hard to pass through them. However, Moyes has been concerned with his side’s tendency to concede soft goals this season. Finding the balance between attack and defence can be hard, as Gooners know all too well.
Rafa Benitez discussed similar problems at Chelsea soon after taking over as manager,
The balance between scoring and not conceding is not easy. You have to put things together, find defence and not lose creativity…
Moyes too has been talking along similar lines,
The basis of being successful is trying to get no goals against, and we have to do that more often. We cannot be relying on scoring two or three every week to win.
In contrast, Wenger’s side seem to have overcorrected when attempting to deal with problems of balance as they’ve conceded just 13 this season but have also had struggles scoring, with the Gunners failing to score in 4 of their League games thus far. Everton have only been shut out once in the League but have also failed to keep many clean sheets, last one of their two coming against Swansea over two months ago.
Apart from the search for balance, Everton’s problem – and it’s related to conceding goals – has also been that their high tempo style is hard to sustain for 90 minutes. Unless they run away with the game when they’re on top, the Toffees always run the risk of giving the opponents a chance to get something from the game once the players begin to tire and gaps start appearing on the pitch.
It’ll be interesting to see how Arsenal approach this game. The Gunners haven’t been very comfortable when attempting to press higher up the pitch and many of their relatively stronger defensive showings have come when the players have dropped back into a good shape a fair way inside their own half. Such an approach against Everton will invite a lot of pressure on the back four and the Keeper as, unlike teams like Sunderland and Villa, the Blues have the ability to work combinations in the final third or put dangerous balls into the box.
Everton’s pressing and ability to retain their defensive shape will also make it hard for the Gunners to build from the back. However, if the hosts choose to play a high line it will also be an opportunity for Wenger’s side as they will have plenty of space in-behind to run into. It’ll then be a matter of resisting the pressure and working the openings, something we’ve seen Arsenal do time and again, especially when Walcott is in the starting eleven.
The Englishman’s battle with Baines is going to be one of the highlights of the game. The one who is able to choose his moment carefully and act decisively will contribute greatly to his side’s chances of winning this six-pointer.
It’ll also be interesting to see how Arsenal deal with Fellaini. Everton might not need the long passes if the Gunners drop back but if they do use those, will Arsenal double team the Belgian? In certain games, we’ve seen Arteta drop right in front of the opposing player who is the target of such aerial balls. The primary idea is not to challenge for the ball in the air – although that’s also part of the job – but to ensure that the player cannot control and distribute it easily.
In a way, we might see Arteta trying to minimize the impact that Fellaini can have, while the Belgian will probably be closing the Spaniard down, when out of possession, to control the influence his former teammate can have on the game.
Everton’s aerial threat in the box will be a concern. I don’t know if Arsenal have enough physical presence or the right tactics to be confident of dealing with everything chucked at them. Will crowding the key areas be enough to put the opponents off? Can the likes of Giroud and the central defenders win enough headers to protect the goal? Will Arsenal leave gaps around the box in an attempt to pull more bodies into the central zones? The answers to these questions and the patterns of play from set-pieces will be a major factor in this game.
In recent games, Arsenal have also used the off-side trap rather effectively. Will it work against the Toffees or has Moyes observed this tendency and devised a plan to break it to his team’s advantage?
Wenger’s starting line-up will determine the aerial presence that the Gunners have but without Diaby there isn’t much that Arsene can do.
I expect Wilshere, Walcott, Sagna, and Vermaelen will come back into the starting line up. Ramsey, Jenkinson, and Oxlade-Chamberlain should make way. Whether the Captain comes in for one of the central defenders or Gibbs remains to be seen. If Gibbs is fully fit he should play. Mertesacker would then be the right choice for a rest as he’s played many games this season.
Szczesny – Sagna, Koscielny, Vermaelen, Gibbs – Arteta, Cazorla, Wilshere – Walcott, Giroud, Podolski.
Whoever plays in central defence will have to keep a close eye on Jelavic. The Croatian striker is an excellent mover and doesn’t need much time or space to convert chances.
There is a case for resting one or more of Arteta, Cazorla, and Podolski. Even Giroud has played many minutes in his first season in England. However, since balance is the primary concern and fluidity a related one, it’s difficult to see Wenger having many choices. Ramsey could be retained in the side if Cazorla is to be given a breather. Gervinho could come in for Podolski or Giroud. But in either cases the choice seems suboptimal. While I’d like to see Arsenal display greater depth in the squad, proven through wins despite rotations, I’m inclined to believe the Gunners lose their edge when a few changes are made. His choices will tell us whether Arsene genuinely believes in his squad players or if he trusts the same ‘jaded’ first-choice players.
All-in-all, I expect there to be goals in this one, three at least. But I don’t know which side will score more. The Gunners have a good record against Everton as they’ve not lost against the Toffees in the last 10 League meetings. They’re also the last side to win at Goodison as the Blues are unbeaten at home in 10 games since their defeat against Arsenal in March.
Everton have 15 first half goals in the League this season, which is more than any other side, and corroborates well with their high intensity style of play early in the games. They top the table based on first half alone with 22 points. Arsenal, on the other hand, have only been outscored once in the second half this season. In fact, the Gunners would be second in the table on 26 points – 2 behind City – if only the second half performance was considered. Maybe there’s some clues to tactical decisions in those stats?
Will Arsenal maintain their dominance over Everton or will the redoubtable hosts conclusively establish they genuineness of their challenge this season?Follow @goonerdesi