Three Takeaways from Arsenal’s Defeat at Everton
Football has this weird phenomena where every club, no matter the size will have a random bogey team or manager that they just cannot beat. Unfortunately for Arsenal, that team happens to be Everton at Goodison Park. To make matters worse, Sean Dyche is a manager that has often caused problems for Arsenal in the past. Arsenal have yet to win at Goodison Park in the league since 2017 which is remarkable considering the state of the two clubs. It was a performance to forget, and one that many fans are struggling to put into context given the success thus far this season. Here are my three big takeaways from the loss Saturday afternoon.
Arsenal fans are a prickly bunch and in the social media era, overreaction to a defeat is pretty par for the course so to see fans up in arms over the performance was not entirely unexpected (except for those #ArtetaOut bunch… you guys are insane). Yes, the performance was atrocious and I will get to that later, but other than two matches this season Arsenal have been tremendous so a single result or performance is not one to cause panic. There is a reason that there is only one Invincible season- it is really really really really difficult to go an entire 38-game season without dropping a stinker or two. Even the powerhouse that is Manchester City dropped points to this Everton team under Frank Lampard at home this season! Remember the Liverpool team that looked unbeatable? They lost to Watford! It happens, and that is what makes football great, on any given day a surprise result could happen. Maybe it is just that Arsenal fans are clouded in the fear that the collapses of seasons past is coming yet again, but to me this team is different and there is over half a season of evidence to suggest we really are good.
Now there is a reason I said don’t panic YET. Just as every title winning side has had bumps in the road, what makes them title winning teams is their ability to respond. If Arsenal want to end the season in glory, responding by smashing Brentford on Saturday is essential. Last season we too often let a poor result lead to a 3 game slide and with the margins so slim this year we cannot let that happen.
This result doesn’t do anything to cap the ceiling of our season, it isn’t an indictment of our upcoming collapse, and analysis of the match must put into context that sometimes a good team has a bad performance. Now thanks to City also losing this weekend, the gap remains 5 points at the top and we move on to the next round.
Against Everton, Arsenal faced a very narrow defense, similar to against Newcastle, which troubled Arsenal and severely limited the ability to progress the ball into the final third. Yet for the first time all season, the Arsenals midfield three (four if you include the unicorn Zinchenko) were outplayed and overrun by Everton’s midfield three. Amadou Onana was especially impressive for the hosts and used his size and physicality alongside Idrissa Gueye to nullify Arsenal’s midfield. Martin Odegaard particularly struggled, and from the onset when he took a nasty kick to the achilles did not have his typically impactful performance on the ball. With the midfield too often crowded out, the only option for the Gunners was to play the ball out wide to Bukayo Saka or Gabriel Martinelli and hope their individual brilliance on the ball would provide a spark- but that played right into Everton’s hand. The improved defensive organization from Everton was able to snuff out the two wide players using two, sometimes three defenders to ensure there was no easy route into the box. Arsenal ended the match with 70% possession yet largely created nothing.
Arsenal have three phases of build up as they progress from back to front and a key component of the third phase is using Ben White as an overlap with Saka on the ball to stretch the opposition defense- critically giving Saka space to utilize his ability on the ball to good use. Everton were able to limit our build up by crowding the midfield so Arsenal were never able to reach the third phase of play. This contributed to Arsenal’s inability to get either Saka or Martinelli into good positions where they could make an impact.
Not only was the narrow formation troubling Arsenal, but the slowness at which Arsenal moved the ball significantly impacted the way we played. Yes the pitch was bumpy and crap, but too often did we see an Arsenal player take a touch too many and by the time the pass was played, the Everton defense had already shifted and adjusted accordingly. We needed to be sharper and not let us get outplayed in midfield against an inferior opponent.
This 4-5-1 (or 4-4-1-1) is a system that will no doubt be used against Arsenal in the future and it is one that Mikel Arteta needs to find a suitable adjustment in order to overcome.
When analyzing any substitute performance there is a large amount of revisionism applied, but to me the substitutes were of no impact from Arteta. To me, there are two types of substitutes: First, If the system is working well and a player is tiring, a like-for-like switch makes a ton of sense. The second is when the system isn’t working and a substitute is meant to change the dynamics of the game and system. At the point of the first substitute, the system was clearly not working and a change was needed to try and give the opposition something different to deal with. Taking off Martinelli for Leandro Trossard, and Odegaard for Fabio Viera were like-for-like subs when this game didn’t need it. We needed to change up the dynamics, a Trossard for Eddie Nketiah sub where Trossard could play False 9 and add another outlet for midfield as Nketiah struggled to make an impact. We needed something more from our midfield, Granit Xhaka for all of his good qualities struggled to break down a really low block against an organized defense and Viera is much more technically savy and could have provided that spark. As someone who watches a lot of ice hockey, it is pretty common to see the head coach of a team struggling switch up the line combinations not as an indictment on a single player or as any indication of a long term switch, but just to see if a new combination will provide a spark in that moment. To me that is what we needed- a spark and unfortunately the subs ended the match with as little an impact as their starting counterpart.
This match was by far the worst performance on the season, but I still trust in the body of work thus far this season and believe we will bounce back against Brentford. There are some huge matches coming up and I am confident the team will rebound quickly to this unfortunate defeat.