The game against the Toffees was possibly a bitter-sweet experience for both sides. Martinez’s side showed just how excellent they can be but we also saw the reasons they have drawn so many games when sometimes their football seemingly deserves more. Arsenal had it tough for long periods in the game but the three points were within their grasp at the end. The nature and timing of the goal conceded definitely added to the disappointment.
Some people were surprised that Everton could come to Arsenal and dominate possession but it was something I’d touched upon in the pre-game article. The Gunners have played two very different styles this season, sometimes during the same game.
They look good when pressing technically limited teams higher up the pitch. The likes of Norwich and Hull found it very hard to get out of their half, for instance. They also made the most of certain singular advantages in games against Napoli – where the tempo was just too high for the visitors – and Liverpool – where the Reds’ formation took away any chance they had of competing for the ball on a consistent basis. But Arsenal haven’t really produced similar pressing and dominance in many of the other games, particularly the big ones. The results against Dortmund and Tottenham, for instance, came on the back of resolute defending in the deeper areas and at the cost of possession.
In this game, it seemed to me that the Gunners were caught in a state of tactical chaos. They were trying to press higher up the pitch but the visitors had the right combination of technique, fluidity, understanding, and bravery to pass their way out of that pressing. They were helped by the fact that Arsenal’s central defenders were not very comfortable higher up the pitch and kept dropping deeper. As a result the gaps between the lines were often very large and it was easier for Everton to play simple short to medium vertical passes that quickly transformed Arsenal’s pressing into frantic acts of chasing back.
The hard working, positionally assured, and committed effort by the central defenders helped keep the visitors at bay. At the same time Arsenal were also helped by the inexperience in the Everton ranks that made them inefficient in the final third. Just as Wilshere often puts the wrong weight on a pass or makes the wrong choice, the likes of Barkley, Lukaku, and other Everton players often got thereabouts in the decisive zones but just fell short of putting it all together.
Ideally, in such a game a tactically mature side would slow the tempo down and absorb the pressure because the opponent is likely to tire. But the degree of frivolity that I’ve noted in recent games was again there and it led to numerous technical errors undermining Arsenal’s biggest strength. I don’t think the players mean to be careless. It just seems that they are trying too hard to create extraordinary moves on too many occasions. Against quality opponents a lot of the one-touch flicks and early passes don’t work. Not only do they lead to a loss of possession it opens the game up for quick transitions.
The players have to learn to bide their time in the build-up because they can be excellent once they are able to advance in numbers as we saw repeatedly when they combined to get in behind the Everton lines. There might be fewer chances created with a more restrained approach but it gives an appearance of solidity, which affects public perception and opposition tactics in equal measure. We have seen such performances from the Gunners and so we know they can do it, it just has to happen on a more consistent basis.
A related issue is that Arsenal have to regain the ability to defend a little higher up the pitch against quality opponents. Defending deep, and effectively at that, can result in clean sheets and results against smaller teams but it won’t always be a clever approach in the big games.
Then again, the equalizer was conceded when the team was sitting deep – something they’ve excelled at thus far this season. It might have been the result of all the pressure Everton had created in the game till that point but I did feel a bit more urgency from Rosicky and/or Gibbs would have made the difference. Could Szczesny have saved a shot that seemed to fly straight over him? Hard to say, it was a powerful shot and I felt there was a slight deflection too.
Another topic that I’d touched upon in the preview was the importance of space in the wide areas when the Arsenal midfielders move all over the pitch. The Gunners could have had numerical advantages in the centre if they’d succeed in moving the ball purposefully but quick transitions and incoherent pressing meant that Everton often had vast open spaces on the flank that they could exploit. Again, it was their inefficiency in the final third that saved Szczesny from having to make many more saves.
All said and done, I thought this game came at a good time for the team. They’re on a high but still have a lot to prove and many areas of improvement to address. It could take some of the playfulness out of their game and bring the professionalism back in. They will need a very professional performance in Italy and the two subsequent games. The results in those games will tell us if this was a good point gained or two vital ones dropped.
Napoli need to win by a margin of three goals to qualify. That’s a tough ask particularly against this stingy version of the Gunners. But it’s not beyond them on their day because they have experienced attacking players and goalscorers.
Italian teams don’t usually play at breakneck speeds but are more tactical in their approach. So it’s more about ball circulation and clever breaks rather than a gung-ho all-action approach. Creating one excellent move can take as little as 10 seconds and if the quality of chance is high they certainly have finishers who can bury it. From that point of view, there is plenty of time in a game to score three goals. However, getting the first one in early might be very important for them and that could force the hosts into taking greater risks.
Wenger’s primary task will probably be to ensure that his players are focussed and don’t make mistakes that gift goals. Let Napoli work hard if they have to succeed and odds are Arsenal’s quality will shine through. On the other hand, we’ve seen Arsenal sides in panic mode that can crumble defensively. It’s not happened recently but the memories are not too distant either for them to be casually dismissed with a wry smile.
Once again spaces between the lines and the narrowness of Arsenal’s defending will be areas to watch out for. Pandev, Higuain, and Co. will certainly offer greater offensive threat if they find the kind of openings Barkley and Lukaku were able to get. You don’t want to see Higuain getting a clear run or shot at goal.
Their full-backs will also pose a greater threat as they will look to pick passes after well-timed late runs instead of swinging in hopeful crosses. Wide players need to be more consistent with their tracking back and the central midfielders more aware of the space in front of the centre-backs, particularly on the edge of the box or just inside.
Arsenal should be able to create a few chances of their own too, especially if they can avoid technical errors. The movement we’ve seen in recent games has been excellent, which in turn has fostered delightful combination play between three, four, and sometimes even more players. A little more efficiency and concentration in vital attacking moments can prove decisive.
It’s hard to say just how many changes Arsene Wenger will make. I’d like to see Walcott on the right as that would give the Gunners a constant threat. To compensate for Theo’s limited defensive skills and given the somewhat tired nature of Ramsey’s last effort, it might be interesting to have Flamini start alongside Arteta. It’d limit the team’s fluidity to an extent but the clever play would be ask both of them to concentrate on defending and sitting deep. This would free up the other more creative players to an extent and avoid the awkwardness of having someone like Flamini trying to play one-twos in tight attacking spaces. The Frenchman knows the league well – in terms of tactics and the pace of the game – so that too could be an added advantage if he starts.
Rosicky for Cazorla is another possibility worth exploring and Monreal could come in for Gibbs. The last two changes don’t give any clear tactical advantage but Rosicky is more comfortable at dropping back to retrieve the ball from the central defenders than Santi, a trait that could come in handy in the absence of Wilshere and Ramsey.
I’d like to see,
Szczesny – Jenkinson, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Gibbs – Arteta, Özil, Flamini – Walcott, Giroud, Rosicky.
A defeat in itself will be a setback but getting knocked out of the Champions League could potentially undo all the good work done thus far this season. It seems highly unlikely as long as the Gunners perform close to the level they’ve shown in recent weeks. That said, you won’t be alone if the lingering ghosts of relatively recent disappointments send a chill down your spine.
A draw will see Arsenal top the group and the players must remember their own qualities if they concede an early goal. Giving the players a copy of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy might be a good idea!
P.S. In case you were wondering, combining the match preview and detailed analysis is not the new approach i want to take, it’s just a matter of time crunch and my disinterest in repeating many points over and over again. I want to take the level of analysis a step higher without being verbose, but thus far I haven’t found concise explanations for certain observations. Appreciate your patience and support at this time.Follow @goonerdesi