Everton 0 -1 Arsenal: Match Thoughts And Individual Analysis

March 22, 2012

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.

Individual Performances:

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.


Thoughts On Tactics And Starting Eleven Against Everton

March 21, 2012

Robin van Persie makes a lot of sense every time he speaks or pens his thoughts. Here are some of his recent nuggets of wisdom as told to Arsenal Player,

After the two defeats to Milan and Sunderland, everyone was like ‘this is going to be a tough couple of weeks’ because we had games against Spurs, Liverpool, Milan and an international week and then Newcastle. Yet we won every game, so we showed lots of character. We can be proud of that.

Now we need to show that over a period of a whole year. That is very hard and only the best of the best teams have that in them. Look at Barcelona for example. They have a special team there, they are playing most games – 9 out of 10 – really well and working hard. We need to have a run like that for months and even win the ugly games.

That’s the blueprint for the rest of the season right there. Arsenal have 10 games to go and they must show they can perform in at least 9 of those starting with Everton. The pride is back. Now it’s time to build on that pride and construct a strong foundation for the next season.

In order to achieve that though, the Gunners will have to get past this habit of conceding the first goal. In simple terms, they’ll have to defend much better. No matter how much character a team has, no matter how hard they fight till the end, no side is going to keep on winning games if they keep on letting the first one in. The run of comebacks will end sooner rather than later.

Arsenal’s record against Everton is encouraging to say the least. The Gunners have a 9-game unbeaten run against the Toffees. But make no mistake, this will be not be a walk in the park. Everton have won their last three Premiership home games without conceding a goal. City, Chelsea, and Tottenham were the opponents. They might not have outplayed their visitors but they found a way to grind out the results. Arsene and his players will have their work cut out for them when they take the field at Goodison Park.

In those three games, City had 68 percent possession, Chelsea 67, while Spurs managed 62. All these sides also had more shots than Everton but crucially, Moyes’ men managed the same shots on target as their illustrious opponents did.

Essentially, Arsenal should be prepared to come up against a very well-organized defensive unit that has only conceded 31 goals all season with just 13 of those coming at home. That averages less than a goal a game. At the other end the Arsenal defence will come up against an opportunistic, even if slightly inefficient, attack.

In the reverse fixture, a Van Persie special was needed to break the deadlock and settle the tie. This game could be just the same but something tells me the hosts will be more adventurous this time around. If that is indeed the case, and/or if we get an early goal, this could be a very open and entertaining encounter.

The big battle will be on Arsenal’s right flank and down Everton’s left. Theo and Sagna have combined to create a lot of chances for the Gunners while Baines is the hosts’ big weapon. I can see Walcott troubling his English compatriot if he gets some space to run into i.e. if Everton come higher up the pitch and if he isn’t double-teamed. At the other end Baines too should get some joy as Theo isn’t the best at tracking back. With Cahill in the box – 3 goals in last 4 games against the Gunners at home – Everton have a good chance of scoring at least one if they can get some quality balls into the box against this Arsenal defence.

Fellaini’s battle with the Arsenal midfielders will be equally interesting. He has the physicality and power to dominate the individual duels and decent technical ability to do something with the ball.

Moyes could take a leaf out of Pardew’s book and set his team up for an aerial assault with Cahill and Fellaini looking to win the second ball. Pienaar and/or Drenthe could offer pace and trickery in the wide areas to go with the duelling midfielders and an imposing striker, most probably Jelavic.

This is an old-fashioned approach but does sometimes work against Arsenal. For the Gunners it will again be a question of the midfielders supporting the defenders when they’re under said aerial attack. Newcastle, in the first 20-25 min or so, were able to get bodies between the Arsenal lines. Everton, if allowed to do the same, will surely find a way to score. The quality of the defenders will not matter if they’re continually exposed.

Barring that, set-pieces and counter-attacks will be Everton’s other weapons of choice. But I can also see them cancelling Arsenal out in the midfield, particularly if they can cut out the passes to the wide players. That could make it a very frustrating night for the Gunners with little creativity on show.

It will be interesting to see whether Moyes has noticed Arsenal’s inability to create much from the left, especially in the recent games. He could adapt a more defensive approach on his left side with Pienaar supporting Baines while leaving Drenthe higher up the pitch to exploit the space behind Gibbs when the youngster pushes up. Essentially, the Everton manager would have to gamble on giving Arsenal more of a chance on that side while hoping that his players can utilize their opportunities. In such a case we might see a congested Right wing frustrating Arsenal while both sides get some joy down the other flank.

There really is no shortage of possible tactical permutations in this game but the patterns of play will largely depend on the tactics that Moyes chooses because Arsenal are fairly predictable in that sense. Hopefully, we will see a more positive approach from the hosts.

Everton have played two games since Arsenal last played in the League. Theoretically, the Gunners should be fresher but I doubt we will see fatigue playing a role in this one. But Arsene should have the luxury of picking the same starting eleven as last time if he so chooses.

The only real debate is for the role on the left. Oxlade-Chamberlain is in a learning phase and that means he doesn’t always know when to offer himself for a pass, the run to make, or the decision to take when on the ball. Gervinho has been inconsistent throughout the season but more so after his return from the Africa Cup of Nations. Benayoun hasn’t performed at the required level either. Arsene has the option of putting Rosicky on the wing with Ramsey coming into the middle but that does not seem like a wise option.

Szczesny – Sagna, Koscielny, Vermaelen, Gibbs – Song, Rosicky, Arteta – Walcott, RvP, Oxlade-Chamberlain.

I’d go with the same starting line-up for the sake of continuity. Arsene should have had the chance to work with AOC on the training ground and, hopefully, that will result in greater and more intelligent involvement from the youngster in this game.

Santos could come in for the final half-hour or so if the situation of the game permits. There probably is a school of thought that says Arsene should play both his full-backs on the left but I’m not in favour of that unless it’s the final few minutes of the game.

On the whole I expect a very tough game with individual moments proving decisive.

Before ending I want to link to this well-constructed discussion examining the merits and demerits of Arsenal’s right-sided attacking bias by the Gingers For Limpar blog, highly recommended if you haven’t already read it.