Arsenal – Everton: Quality in front of goal makes the difference for unspectacular Arsenal (2-0)
Arsenal controlled the ball, but Everton was the more threatening team. That was until Alexandre Lacazette’s quality finish and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s goal from an offside position decided the game for an Arsenal team that otherwise struggled to create.
Arsenal recovered from a tough start to the season, with losses to Manchester City and Chelsea, by winning three Premier League games in a row. Despite this, there are still questions to be asked about Unai Emery’s team, especially on the defensive side. Arsenal had not yet kept a clean sheet in the league going into this game, and the fact that it conceded twice against both Cardiff City and FC Vorskla Poltana makes for worrying reading, considering that these are clearly low-quality sides.
There had also been doubts about Marco Silva’s squad, based on their performances this season. Everton came into the game with just one win, while not having played against any teams who finished in the top half last season. Its previous three league results included letting a 2-0 lead slip in the last fifteen minutes against Bournemouth, being held to a draw at home by Huddersfield and a 3-1 home defeat against a winless West Ham.
Emery went with the 4-2-3-1 formation he’s favoured at Arsenal so far. The three attacking midfielders were Mesut Özil, Aaron Ramsey and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, playing behind Alexandre Lacazette. Henrikh Mkhitaryan has been relegated to bench and Europa League appearances of late. The significant team news for Arsenal was the inclusion of Lucas Torreira. The summer signing from Sampdoria has impressed in his outings as a substitute, leading many to call for him to start.
Everton made three changes after the disappointing loss against West Ham last week, but also kept the same 4-2-3-1 system. Michael Keane returned from injury to replace Mason Holgate in central defense. Tom Davies captained the side, aged just 20 years old, replacing Morgan Schneiderlin in central midfield. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, star signing Richarlison returned from suspension, replacing Cenk Tosun, meaning Dominic Calvert-Lewin moved to a centre-forward role.
Both team’s general positioning and movements when Arsenal had the ball
Everton solid against Arsenal possession
Arsenal’s structure in possession under Emery is quite aggressive. The fullbacks are responsible for positioning themselves in very advanced areas on the wings, with the wide-midfielders in the 4-2-3-1 moving closer to the center, between the lines of the opponent’s defensive shape.
With high numbers in advanced positions, there is a big responsibility on the two center-backs and two central midfielders in build-up as well as in defending counter attacks. It can happen that those four players are the only ones behind the ball for Arsenal, and they are left with large spaces to defend in transition, especially in wide areas.
Everton defended in a 4-4-2 shape, with Sigurðsson joining Calvert-Lewin up top. These two players were first and foremost concerned with preventing passes into midfielders Torreira and Granit Xhaka. To escape the opposition forwards and receive the ball, Arsenal’s midfield pairing had to pull into wide areas alongside the center-backs or drop in between them.
On a couple of occasions, Özil or Ramsey would drop back to collect the ball from deep and try to launch attacks. They had time to turn because Sigurðsson and Calvert-Lewin were focused on Torreira and Xhaka, and the Everton midfielder who pushed out to close them down would arrive too late.
Arsenal’s best chance of the first half arose from such a situation, when Ramsey dropped deep to collect, turned, and played a line-breaking pass into the feet of Lacazette, who gave the lay-off for the ball to be shifted wide to the onrushing Héctor Bellerín. His cross resulted in a good chance for Nacho Monreal to open the scoring.
In general, full-backs Bellerín and Monreal were two of Arsenal’s main outlets in a struggling attack in the first half. Everton’s wide midfielders, former Arsenal man Theo Walcott and Richarlison, were tracking them, but would pressure them once they received the ball rather than marking them to try and minimise the passing lanes between them and their central-midfielders. This enabled the Arsenal full-backs to receive, but Arsenal were unable to make much out of this, as their attempts to move the ball back inside were usually stopped.
Everton look to exploit high line
Just like when in possession of the ball, under Emery, Arsenal also tries to be very proactive with its defending . They want to defend with a high line and use offside traps. On the one hand, this can provide game control by pushing your opposition back and forcing the game as far away from your own goal as possible. On the other hand, the obvious risk is the large spaces left behind the defense, which can be exploited.
Everton demonstrated this early on when Calvert-Lewin was played in behind the defense. Sustained Everton attacks were quite rare though, especially in the first half, where Arsenal had 67 percent of the possession. Everton’s forays forward mostly came in transition, and generally with quick attacks trying to get in behind, such as with Walcott or Richarlison running into the channel between the center-back and full-back. They also used direct passes for Richarlison and Calvert-Lewin to try and hold the ball up.
Arsenal’s quality shines through in second half
For the first half, plus the opening ten minutes of the second half, Everton had actually looked the more likely team to score, despite Arsenal’s higher possession share. That’s when having top-quality players makes all the difference, which was evident in Arsenal’s first goal. Right-back Jonjoe Kenny got pulled narrow inside the box, Lacazette had drifted out to the resulting space on the left side of the box, and Walcott had not dropped back to help. Lacazette received the ball just inside the box and very classily bended a shot into the top corner to open the scoring.
A few minutes later, Arsenal scored another goal. One that should have been ruled out for offside. Despite not having done a huge amount wrong, Everton found themselves 2-0 down.
Everton started to press higher, meaning Arsenal did not dominate possession for long stretches anymore. Instead of playing out from the back, Arsenal used more long balls to get up the pitch. With the full-backs playing slightly more conservative, and the defensive line slightly deeper, Arsenal tried to close the space in behind. All in all, Arsenal was quite secure in doing so, other than one Keane header from a set-piece which Čech did well to save.
Everton might feel hard done by to lose 2-0 based on their performance. This will go down on paper as the latest in a spell of disappointing results, but in reality, Everton can take some positives from the performance. Especially the solidity in defense should inspire some hope.
Unai Emery will be happy that his team managed to get him his first clean sheet as Arsenal coach. The fact that Calvert-Lewin and Walcott were both able to frequently break their offside trap and go one-on-one with Čech in the first half will worry Emery somewhat. The defensive questions hanging over Arsenal do not necessarily seem resolved.