Arsenal came away empty-handed from Goodison Park after playing well for approximately two of the final 60 minutes against Ronald Koeman’s resurgent Everton side, who had only won one of their last 10 matches.
It’s the second time in two years they’ve let the underperforming and under-fire Dutchman off the managerial hot seat.
The capitulation was especially disappointing considering how competently Arsenal had dealt with a typically stern test for the opening 25 minutes. The decision to sit off and play primarily on the counter after going 0-1 up through Alexis Sanchez’s deflected free kick was a thoroughly understandable one. However, Arsenal’s execution of this plan for the final 20 minutes of the half was poor.
As defensive tactics go, choosing to control possession or choosing to sit off and control space are only as good as their execution. It’s much like the zonal vs man marking debate. Both are fundamentally sound ideas, with their strengths and weaknesses, but their success or failure is entirely dependent on the competency of the players executing them.
Sometimes Arsenal have got possession football right. They’ve maneuvered the opposition with their passing, drawn them out of position and worked an opening, before getting a shot off. Other times, they’ve got it wrong. They’ve circulated the ball in a U-shape, failing to break the opposition lines or get any penetration, let alone working themselves into a position to take a shot. This was evident in this season’s stalemate with Middlesbrough.
Sometimes Arsenal have sat off their opponents, controlled the spaces, made it hard for the opposition to pass through their lines, then looked to intercept the ball and hit on the counter. This rope-a-dope tactic was especially effective in away games in the first half of 2013/14, in wins at Palace, Swansea, Cardiff, and also in Arsenal’s last four games this season. However, last night at Goodison, Arsenal came unstuck.
Arsenal planned to protect their 1-0 lead by sitting off Everton, controlling the space in midfield, waiting for them to overcommit fullbacks Coleman and Baines, before nicking the ball, quickly moving it wide, and hitting on the counter. Arsenal’s inability to effectively move the ball forward on the counter prevented them from alleviating the mounting Everton pressure.
When you’re sitting off your opponent, you’re always just one slip or lapse in concentration away from presenting the opposition with a chance a short distance from your goal. As Arsenal were unable to clear their lines or play through midfield, Everton spent the rest of the first half knocking at the door and always looked the more likely to get the next goal in the game.
The selection of Alexis and Mesut Özil as quasi forwards, and Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain as out-and-out wide players did not work against Everton and Wenger’s tactics that had paid dividends in the past few league games finally came unstuck. Getting into end-to-end basketball style knife fights against Bournemouth, West Ham and Stoke worked, largely due to the opposition not being up to much in midfield against what was essentially an Arsenal two. Last night against an unimaginative but hard-running Everton side, it didn’t work at all.
After the first 20 minutes, wide players Walcott and Oxlade-Chamberlain looked distinctly cut off from play. They weren’t offering anything out wide or helping make life easier for Arsenal’s central players. It sometimes looked like we were playing with 9 men.
This in turn put more pressure on the central players. Both Alexis and Özil looked 10-15% shy of their best and it affected every facet of their game. Given the central overcrowding and ineffectivity of Arsenal’s wide players, both Alexis and Özil looked to drift into the halfspaces to receive the ball in space. This in turn put further pressure on the midfield base of Granit Xhaka and Francis Coquelin. The strain on the midfield base and the defence inhibited Arsenal from effectively playing out from the back under the waves of Everton pressure.
The period of the match between the 30th and 60th minutes was typified by Arsenal struggling to play out of their own half or build play as a result of Everton pressure in the middle third. This was due to not enough Arsenal players, particularly Coquelin and the wide players, not moving off the ball to present a viable relief option for their pressured teammate on the ball to pass to. The game was crying out for one of the disconnected wide players to be withdrawn for Alex Iwobi, to help with ball retention.
Around the hour mark, Arsenal started having some joy getting down the sides of Everton’s box. A couple of teasing crosses which were ultimately dealt with by Everton’s aerially superior CBs suggested that playing this way may prove more viable with Giroud on the pitch. However, his introduction would mean a trade-off of mobility that would sacrifice Arsenal being able to quickly close down Everton at the back and prevent them hitting long direct balls for Lukaku. But if Arsenal persisted with their crossing, perhaps Giroud could have the same impact he did at Sunderland. It wasn’t to be the case.
Instead of bringing on Iwobi and persisting with playing the same way they had for the first hour, or bringing on Giroud and playing the same way they had for the two good minutes since, Wenger opted to do a little from column A and a little from column B. It didn’t work. Arsenal lost the ability to pressurise Everton’s defenders and also stopped delivering the ball into the box. They failed to assert themselves into the game in any way and were drawn into playing the game Everton wanted to play.
Arsenal failed to beat Everton because an initial suboptimal team selection was made to look worse by poor individual performances on the day. A chance to get back into the game in the second half was spurned, first by managerial indecision and putting too much faith in the players on the pitch to turn it around, and then by taking a gamble that didn’t pay off by introducing the wrong combination of players.