Everton – Arsenal: One Step Forward, Two Steps Backward (2-1)
Twenty seven minutes marked 27 years of disappointment for Everton, but more than a decade of decay for Arsenal has been enough to last a lifetime. Project Youth may have lost the magic in the final third that was a hallmark of the team from the past, yet the tradition of gifting teams in crisis a lifeline is still wedded firmly in their DNA.
Tactical analysis and match report by Emmanuel Adeyemi-Abere.
A Liverpool manager taking charge of a misshapen Everton side had no option but to work if the club wished to avoid further crisis. Yet, a third of the way into the season, this risk has badly backfired. A 4-1 loss at the hands of their high-flying local rivals showcased their dire state of affairs as optimism, off the back of an assured start to the campaign, gave way to mediocrity. Take another defeat in front of an enraged home support, and Rafa Benítez could be a dead man walking if he wasn’t as it stood.
Mikel Arteta may be a far more welcome face at Goodison Park, but the mood around him in North London remains ambivalent. True to Arsenal’s rich red heritage, a fabled process has blooded youth into the fold. Yet, far murkier has been the manager’s intent for his men on the pitch— or just how good this outfit even are. Humiliations on the road at the top three have curbed expectations, but a commanding display was in order if the away team wanted to strengthen their bid to return to Europe.
Few scenarios would spur changes more than a derby day rout, so it was not a shock to see Benitez make two alterations to his team. Richarlison and Andros Townsend made up the front two off the back of Salomón Rondón’s injury, leaving Anthony Gordon to fill in on the right wing. Lucas Digne was also absent, forcing Ben Godfrey to deputize at left back and Yerry Mina to replace him centrally.
Watching his men play out a 3-2 defeat at Old Trafford on Thursday, Arteta picked four new names in the lineup for this fixture. Kieran Tierney and Granit Xhaka returned from injury to feature on the left of the backline and the double pivot. However, a groin issue kept out Emile Smith Rowe, who made way for Bukayo Saka. Alexandre Lacazette then led the line in place of Pierre Emerick-Aubameyang.
If one feature of Arsenal’s identity under Arteta has been constant in recent months, it has been the use of an asymmetric back three. Indeed, once in control of the ball, the visitors showcased this setup once more. Takehiro Tomiyasu stayed back next to the pair of central defenders, forming the base of the offensive structure. On the other hand, Kieran Tierney pushed up high on the left. Saka mainly held the width on the right flank, while Gabriel Martinelli would move inwards to the left halfspace.
Arsenal’s usual asymmetric 4231 offensive shape with a withdrawn right back and advanced left back
During the first half, slight variants emerged in this basic structure. If Ben White had space to dribble, Tomiyasu could move up in the right halfspace to offer a third progressive option between Saka and Martin Ødegaard. Roaming to the right from a central spot, the number ten was a safe option between the lines. Further adjustments from the double pivot around the back three could give Xhaka a more ball dominant role than Thomas Partey to progress the play in the room next to Gabriel Magalhães.
Gunners run out of ammunition
On the left, Tierney would seldom come inside in place of Martinelli. The winger would make more goal-oriented movements, occupying the back four while Lacazette dropped off more to the left to help progress the play. From time to time, the two loaded the halfspace in a way that let Tierney break down the left flank freely, offering the away team’s best form of chance creation in the final third. But, facing a deep Evertonian block that lay low in a 4-4-2 shape, a familiar narrative soon came to light.
Once again, the Gunners were firing blanks. Their ball circulation was not always smooth from the back. White played several inappropriate switches of play from the right towards Tierney, where aerial interceptions from Gordon might have been costly on the break. But, above all, Arteta’s men looked bereft of ideas to generate chances. A classically wayward strike from Partey was one of only two shots in the first half, leaving the contest at a stalemate.
A flash of class
Thankfully for the guests, Benítez’s outfit have looked short on confidence. But it was Everton that drew first blood. In the 44th minute, Townsend bent a delivery into the penalty area from a free kick, finding the head of Richarlison on the edge of the six yard box. His teammate steered an effort past Aaron Ramsdale, handing the home team the lead. But to his misfortune, the linesman then flagged for offside to chalk off the strike. And to make matters worse, Arsenal jerked into life in front of goal.
Constructing another attack down the left, Xhaka fed the ball into Lacazette, who then found Tierney breaking down the flank. The fullback whipped a menacing cross into the box, where Ødegaard had raced free from any markers to sweep home a volley on the stroke of half time. Bagging a goal for the second match in a row, he had put the Gunners on their way to all three points.
Just moments after having a goal wiped out, Everton go behind against Arsenal! 😬— Sky Sports Premier League (@SkySportsPL) December 6, 2021
Martin Odegaard is unmarked in the box to volley in the opener at Goodison Park! 🎯 pic.twitter.com/t3ZtUzymLJ
After half time, Arteta made some adjustments to his side’s structure. Tomiyasu, who had already made advances more centrally into the final third, now held the width on the right flank as a classic fullback. In the meantime, Xhaka stayed deep in the left halfspace, forming a 2-3 base at the halfway line. On the side away from the ball, Tierney also began to crash the box more to offer more options for crosses from the right flank. But, in the end, the tweaks hardly improved Arsenal’s fortunes.
Meanwhile, Everton grew more desperate. Sitting off for much of the first half, they began to press higher from their 4-4-2 block. However, as was the case against Liverpool, several of these sequences were chaotic, allowing the away team to progress around Everton’s shape and break at speed into the final third. Indeed, right on the hour mark, Ødegaard slipped an intricate reverse pass in one such situation to Martinelli, who failed to hit the target.
Agony for Arteta
Both managers then turned to men the bench. A straight swap from Arteta saw Tierney make way for Nuno Tavares at left back, while Benítez plucked for a change in formation. Angel Gomes replaced Townsend, but he kept the left winger wide rather than move Gray into the front two. So, a 4-3-3 shape emerged where Allan sat behind Gomes and Abdoulaye Doucouré if his team were on the ball.
It would be a stretch to say Everton were far more inventive, but they worked their way back into the game. Doucouré generated a turnover from an Arsenal throw in deep in their half of the pitch, forcing the ball over to the left. Gray cracked an effort onto the crossbar, only for Richarlison to head home the rebound into an empty net. The forward’s luck was in on this occasion, leveling up the scoreline.
Eddie Nketiah then conspired to guide a two-yard header onto the post, but Arteta’s anguish was far from over. In the dying embers of the match, Gray drove towards the box on the break, rifling a strike from range into the net off the post. A sea of blue erupted: Everton 2-1 Arsenal.
Demarai Gray's late thunderbolt lifted the mood at Everton as Rafael Benitez's side came from behind to secure a dramatic 2-1 victory against Arsenal...🚀— Sky Sports Premier League (@SkySportsPL) December 7, 2021
The three points offer a brief form of respite for Everton. Climbing to twelfth place in the league table, they now sit eight points ahead of the bottom three. However, amid the displeasure of the walkouts, the result cannot swerve attention away from the frailties on the blue side of Merseyside. Benítez has not given the fans much to sing about and fittingly they will now face a Crystal Palace side whose fresh blood shows up the lifelessness at Goodison Park.
The saying ‘one step forward, two steps back’ strikes a chord with few sides more than with Arsenal. Nearly two years into Arteta’s time at the helm, outgoings, and incomings have molded an outfit in the image of its manager. But, while the talk of relegation from August is a world away, the frustrations this team routinely conjure up are as close as ever. Neither is the attack full of incision and craft nor the defense radically better, leaving observers to wonder what of note Arsenal can achieve this season.
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