After gloomfests against agricultural opponents Reading and Norwich, Wednesday night offers a more well heeled encounter against the very watchable but flaky Arsenal in what is always an interesting tactical joust. We start the game ahead of Wenger’s men in the table and if we are serious about putting our keys on the table for champions league adventures a positive result is essential. So, let’s took a look at our visitors in more detail…
Off the ball….
The zeitgeist would suggest the Gunners have a shaky backline although this is actually quite wide of the mark given that they have the best defensive record in the top flight on the road. They work very hard as a team off the ball; last season they applied more pressure than any side in the top flight as shown here and this hasn’t waned this season with 47.1 pressing contacts per game, up by 0.8 on last season.
This perception of them being poor defensively has perhaps been attributed to some shoddy individual errors and the fact that players like Vermaelen and the figure of hate Andre Santos are perhaps better on the ball than off it. In the Spurs game for example Mertesacker made a horrible judgement call in stepping out to play offside. Such mistakes haven’t been frequent however. Their left side does seem the suspect area given that if selected ahead of Gibbs, the Vermaelen/ Podolski axis looks fragile defensively. On the right (if fit/selected) Walcott/Sagna are equally offensive and engineering 2v1’s in these wide areas will be Moyes principal attacking focus.
The big challenge for Arsenal this season was replacing Van Persie and the Dutchman’s goals and assists which accounted for 27 of the Gunner’s points last season – a staggering figure. Podolski and Giroud where recruited to fill the void but its perhaps in the central middle trio of Arteta, Cazorla and Wilshere where the key strength of this current Arsenal side lies and where Moyes will view as the priority in terms of applying pressure and disrupting rhythm.
They play pretty much a 1+2 triangle with ex-toffee Mikel Arteta anchoring things at the base with Wilshere and Cazorla further forward. Arteta makes the most passes per game in the top flight and will link defence to the more offensive CM’s. Like a deceased pop star, Wilshere’s lengthy absence has elevated his stature and reputation resulting in a massively over hyped return to action last month. Granted he looks decent but it’s perhaps an indication of how few players we are producing in this country that so much rests on his relatively inexperienced shoulders. Cazorla is clearly ace and will look to find space between the lines and drift over to their left of centre zone so our gap between defence and midfield will need to condense this space.
The games between the two clubs are always interesting tussles. Wenger has an ideology he will follow regardless of the opponent whilst Moyes will always tweak to negate opposition danger men. We lost both games 0-1 last season. Both sides look to play the game in the opponents final third and statistically the sides are 2 of the top 3 in the league for touches in the opposition final third hence high lines were the key feature of last season’s games.
At the Emirates we did little in the final third whilst at the back we held a high line in the first half but didn’t compress midfield (as shown above) leading to Arsenal having frequent one on ones with Howard, all of which they fluffed. The game featured the most off sides (15) in a league game last season.
In the second period our line dropped back 10 yards, denying Arsenal the ball in behind and thus making it more difficulty for them to create openings. Moyes discussed the high line post match:
“The high line wasn’t necessarily the plan but we wanted to limit Arsenal and that means midfielders have to go and get close to Arsenal’s midfielders. If you do that then the back four have to move up too. We wanted to disrupt Arsenal’s passing and win the ball early. If we came and parked the bus you would be saying why did we not have a go, well we did, and if you do that you are always going to give Arsenal some opportunities. We tried to get at them, I thought we got into some great positions to make opportunities, great positions to deliver crosses and we either never delivered them or never completed the move.”
At Goodison we struggled for territory particularly in the first half due to Arsenal’s high defensive line. Post match Moyes lamented the opening period when we gave Arsenal ‘Too much room and too much opportunity to play”. An example of this is shown below with Arteta again pulling the strings….
Like the game at the Emirates, there were frequent off sides with Moyes afterwards a bit miffed by five incorrect calls including a major gaff when the enigmatic Royston Drenthe’s goal was wrongly ruled out for offside. The Gunners caught us offside a whopping 10 times (average per team per game in the prem is 2). It’s rare that Baines makes more tackles than crosses in a game but that was the case in this one as possession wise Arsenal crushed us with 61% of the ball. In the second half we had more of a say and used long balls aimed at our left side to get more territory in the opposition half. Bacary Sagna won 13 aerials -mostly from these long balls which was 90% more than any other player. Whilst this was commendable Moyes appeared happy to lose the first ball but then hoover up the second ball, with Pienaar picking up more interceptions than anyone on the pitch.
Arsenal’s backline kept a clean sheet on Saturday but left out regulars Sagna, Vermealen and Wilshere and I’d suspect all three will return for this one. Returning from suspension, I’d expect Fellaini to drop in on Arteta in a similar way Rooney did recently at Old Trafford. I’d have Jelavic picking up the very competent Koscielny with our wide men pushed up on the visitor’s full backs. Mertesacker will probably start to deal with the aerials/long balls and the big German is their weakest passer so if we have to leave a man free it’s probably best that it’s him. Walcott is still a doubt and given his recent form let’s hope he isn’t fit as his pace could force Baines back into positions we don’t want to see him. Hopefully Gibson and Mirallas can both return probably at the expense of Hitzlsperger and Oviedo.
Everton are slight favourites at 13/8 with Betfred with Arsenal 15/8 with Skybet to be triumphant with the draw best offered at 13/5 by Willie Hills. Both games last season were 1-0 wins to Arsenal and as noted above they have the best defensive record on the road so I could see this one being under 2.5 goals and being a tight one with both halves to be drawn at 5/1 with Bet365 a decent shout. I’m going for a 1-1 draw.
1. Selection & Tactics
The Blues made 2 changes from the side which drew the FA Cup Quarter Final earlier in the week; Steven Pienaar came in for the injured Seamus Coleman and Tony Hibbert replaced skipper Phil Neville. The system was the usual 4-4-1-1 with Cahill initially pivoting between midfield and attack in support of Jelavic. The Gunners only significant change was to bring back the talented Aaron Ramsey from injury with the Welshman deployed in an attacking midfield berth from the left drifting inside onto Hibbert’s left foot– something the fullback struggles to cope with. Wenger’s side lined up in more of a 4-2-3-1.
2.Gunners In the groove
The opening 20 minute spell was a complete non starter for the Toffees. Arsenal, clearly coming into the game with great confidence on the back of recent results, were pinging the ball around with some aplomb and repeatedly carving open a back four which had conceded just 1 Goodison goal in its last 9 hours of action. The hallmarks of the recent slayings of the league’s top clubs were not on show with virtually no pressure on the ball and an increasingly deep defensive line standing off and inviting pressure from the Gunners. The below image shows Arteta unmarked in acres of space in the build up to an early chance which the away side spurned.
Despite some really fluid play it was a corner that witnessed the Londoners take the lead as the ever productive Van Persie whipped in a left footed in swinger which was nodded home by the impressive Vermaelen after he wrong footed his marker Fellaini by fainting to run near post and then angled his run centrally. It was a criminal goal to give away by the Blues but in truth given the opportunities they missed we were lucky to still be in the game at the midway point of the first half.
3. Cahill / Fellaini Switch
With Arsenal and especially our old friend Mikel Arteta swelling possession in the centre the Blues continued to toil which led to Moyes swapping Cahill and Fellaini. The big Belgian is our best presser but in the early stages was out manoeuvred as his aggressive darts were being bypassed by quick triangular passing movements by the Gunners. As Moyes did with 30mins to go in the Sunderland game, Fellaini was pushed forward – playing pretty much as a central striker to occupy the Arsenal centre-backs – with Cahill dropping deep.
The bonus this had was twofold; firstly Fellaini (circled) was able to press the Gunners CB’s to stop them playing out from the back to Arteta and secondly it enabled us to get from back to front quicker using his significant height advantage and upper body strength to hold up play. This enabled the Blues to move further up the pitch and push our defensive line up a tad. The tactic now was to play more direct diagonal balls from Howard and Heitinga to the Gunners right side and specifically Sagna in the hope of winning flick ons or second balls. Sagna is decent in the air and won 14 aerials – 4 more than our team put together – but we did collect a lot of the second balls with Sagna dispossessed more times (4) than any other player on the pitch.
The only negative impact of this was that our bypassing of the middle ground with longer passes negated the offering from Leon Osman who was thus on the periphery of things for most of the evening before eventually getting the hook.
4.Gunners Defensive Line
As noted in the preview, both side’s high lines in the early season fixture at the Emirates led to the most offsides (15) in a prem game this season. The Gunners defensive line was such an obvious tactical approach last night that even the auto-pilot corpse that is Alan Hansen on motd would have been able to pick it out….or not! The Gunners caught us offside a whopping 10 times (average per team per game in the prem is 2). Moyes questioned 5/10 of the calls and it’s clear that Drenthe was at least 2 yards onside when he stroked the ball into Szczesny’s net following good work from Cahill. The Blues were now at least asking questions of the previously un-worked visitor’s backline. The high line dynamic continued in the second period and despite a greater intensity from the Blues as the game went on the equalising goal just wouldn’t come.
This was a strange game that we could easily have been 0-3 down in at one stage yet by the close of play we could count ourselves a tad unlucky not to take a point. Credit to Arsenal, their passing and movement in the fist 20mins was something to behold and we couldn’t handle them. Defensively they restricted us to few clear cut opportunities, albeit with some help from the officials on the Drenthe ‘offside’ goal.
With the momentum of the 9 game unbeaten run now compromised the worry is that our season has already peaked as we head to Swansea on Saturday for a very tricky looking fixture. A positive result would be a real boost before heading to the Stadium of Light on Tuesday for a game which will ultimately define the remainder of the season.
Everton remained unchanged personnel wise from the side that drew with Chelsea at the weekend with Rodwell playing off Saha up front in a 4-4-1-1 system; the only slight tweak was Rodwell and Arteta interchanging as the furthest forward support to the main striker. Arsenal played in their usual 4-2-3-1 system with the support for Van Persie coming from Fabregas (central) Rosicky (left) and Walcott (right).
Fellaini dominant first half
Not for the first time of late, Marouanne Fellaini was the main man in the first 45 minutes, winning 8 out of his 10 tackles and with a pass completion average of a whopping 87%. The second half witnessed his tackle completion dropping to just 3 out of 6 and his pass completion dropping to 70%.
The dominance of the Belgian over the entire game in the first period was enough to see the Blues take a deserved lead through the revitalised Louis Saha following good work down the right from Coleman although the Frenchman looking in an offside position when put through. It was a richly deserved lead and the Blues passing in the Arsenal half was very impressive as was the pressing from midfield.
Blues sit back and passing deteriorates
The second half began with the Blues sitting further back inside their own half and conceding countless fouls around our 18 yard line in the face of growing Arsenal pressure. It was a similar story to the victory at Man City with the Blues seemingly happy with their lead and opting to defend what we had. Unfortunately it couldn’t last and we capitulated conceding 2 goals in five crazy second half minutes. Notice how in the below graph our pass completion lunges alarmingly from a steady 70-80% throughout to 54% in the period Arsenal claimed both goals?
With regard to the winning goal from Koscielny, you expect Arsenal to pull defenders out of position and play through you but headers from corners you most certainly do not…. inexplicably bad defending from the Blues here. Moyes went 4-3-3 with Anichebe and Fellaini up front with Saha and a more direct approach for the last 10 minutes but it was to no avail as the Blues let a winning advantage slip for the 10th time this season. Such a disappointing end to a night which promised so much.
Everton made 2 changes from the side that drew with Bolton on Wednesday, with Coleman and Heitinga coming back in for the ineffectual Bilyaletdinov and the suspended Fellaini. Saha somewhat surprisingly kept his place at the expense of Yakubu with Everton unsurprisingly sticking to their 4-5-1 system. Heitinga is the only player in Everton’s midfield for whom their positioning changes dependent on the opposition, and whilst many would have expected him to sit in front of Jagielka and Distin and track Fabregas, he played further forward closer to Song. Arsenal brought back Nasri for Rosicky in a fluid 4-2-3-1 setup with Chamakh leading the line with closest support provided from Fabregas.
Everton lack of pressing,
Arsenal began the game in confident mood, strumming the ball around nicely albeit with a lack of penetration against an Everton who were happy to defend deep. Everton briefly rallied, and were unlucky not to take the lead when a trademark dart down the right by Coleman culminated in Cahill uncharacteristically miscuing a header over the bar unchallenged at the far post. Despite this, Everton were clearly not at the races both on and off the ball. With Heitinga stupidly booked for a flurry of early fouls (he had clearly not learned his lesson from his previous meeting with Howard Webb in the World Cup Final) and Arteta having a poor afternoon, Everton were being out passed in the key central midfield battle. Fabregas was dropping in to support Song and Wilshere and bossing this vital area of the pitch. Arteta has generally struggled this season for form, failing to dominate matches as he was in last seasons run in. Diagram A below shows his lack of penetration, with barely any of his 33 successful passes going forward, instead going backwards or sideways, reminiscent of Jamie Redknapp in his Anfield heyday.
Diagram A Diagram B
Arsenal make Everton pay
The Spaniard was at fault for the opening Arsenal goal. With Arsenal overloading on the right, Arteta failed to press Sagna who was allowed to stroll into the Blues box and lash home after being teed up by Arshavin. To be fair, Heitinga was equally guilty for not pressing Nasri on the edge of the box, almost inviting him to shoot in a move reminiscent to Ben Arfa’s match wining strike early this season. Howard will also feel that he should have done better being beaten at his near post. The Blues display was incredibly sluggish, failing to press Arsenal in their own half and allowing their opponents time and space to build from the back. This is shown in Diagram B, with the Blues only making 2 interceptions in Arsenal’s half in the entire 90 minutes.
With Heitinga now on a disciplinary tightrope following almost incessant volleying of Wilshere, he was replaced by Rodwell for the second half. However, straight from the re-start Arsenal doubled their money after the Blues lazy passing and inability to close opponents was punished in lethal fashion. Piennar’s ball to Arteta was snuffed out by Denilson, who drove through acres of space to feed Chamakh who in turn teed up Fabregas who arrowed a superb strike into Howard’s net. It has been commented on these pages before about Everton’s defensive frailty down the left. Out of the 15 goals Everton have conceded 10 have come from the lef thand side, and it was obvious watching Arsenal’s play that they were targeting this area and getting 2 on 1 scenario for Nasri/Sagna on Baines. Piennar is probably our best player and whilst I wouldn’t ever question his commitment and work rate, his positional naivety when Everton do not have the ball is clearly an area opponents look to exploit, as evidenced by Arsenal’s attack map below (Diagram C) with a staggering 49% of the Gunners attack was channelled down the Blues left.
4-5-1 becomes 4-3-3
Somewhat surprisingly, David Moyes brought off Neville and Arteta and replaced them with Yakubu and Saha, with Coleman and Baines providing the width from fullback areas in an attacking 4-3-3. Initially the Blues couldn’t get near Arsenal, who effectively had 2 extra players in midfield. However, the system was to trigger Everton’s most threatening period of play, with a mix of long balls into the opposition box and excellent wing play from Coleman/Baines leading to Cahill getting a goal back for the Blues. Piennar and Beckford both went close late on but to no avail. The Blues could look at refereeing decisions by Webb which went against them throughout the game that contributed to this reverse, notably for a handball by Djorou in the Gunners box late on.
Arsenal shaded this game and it would be hard to begrudge them the points. Everton were let down by below par displays from some of the more senior players, in particular Arteta and Heitinga. Everton defended very deep to counter act Arsenal’s notorious strength on the break. This didn’t really work though and it gave Arsenal too much space in between the lines, as shown with Denilson’s run for goal number two. Defeat means Everton have won only 3 of their opening 13 games, albeit with a lot of draws in that sequence. The left sided issue clearly needs to be addressed, as does the recurring theme of lack of goals from strikers. Overall this was a disappointing day at the office for the Blues.