The January transfer window not only brought fresh faces amid the significant player turnover but a renewed sense of belief that Arsenal can make a strong push for the Top 4. After a dispiriting loss to the bottom of the table Swansea City, Arsenal was looking to secure all 3 points against an Everton side that had claimed only 4 points out of their last 5 matches. An early blitzkrieg by Arsenal in the 1st half laid to rest any hope of an Everton comeback and despite a late consolation goal by Dominic Calvert-Lewin, Arsenal demonstrated how potent their new attack can be for the rest of the season.
Arsenal (4-2-3-1): Cech (Ospina, 70’) // Monreal (Kolasinac, 45’) – Mustafi – Koscielny – Bellerin // Xhaka – Ramsey (Wilshere, 75’) // Iwobi – Ozil – Mkhitaryan // Aubameyang
Everton (3-4-3): Pickford // Mangala – Williams – Keane (Davies, 45’) // Cuco Martina – Gueye – Schneiderlin – Kenny // Bolasie – Niasse (Tosun, 78’) – Walcott (Calvert-Lewin, 61’)
Wenger set up with a 4-2-3-1 that has become a commonplace formation when Arsenal are at home. While the inclusion of Mkhitaryan was no surprise, the first home start for Aubameyang was, considering that he only recently arrived and has been battling the flu. Lacazette was dropped to the bench as well as Wilshere, who had been in scintillating form in the past month. Despite his poor form of late, Xhaka anchored the midfield alongside Ramsey who supplied his usual late-timing runs into the box.
Allardyce set up his side in a 3-4-3 to exploit the continuing problems that Arsenal have in covering the flanks in transition. A front 3 of Bolasie, Niasse, and Walcott were positioned to counterattack quickly by stretching the pitch with their off-ball movement. A defence midfield pairing of Schneiderlin and Gueye meant to serve as a fulcrum for their more attack-minded players to push forward. Kenny earned the start at right wing-back with Seamus Coleman recently returning from a fractured fibula and tibia last March.
Everton’s Defensive Setup Does…Nothing
At first glance, it appeared that Allardyce adopted a defensive formation similar to those used by other teams when they play against Arsenal. Typically, teams will look to deny central access to Arsenal’s midfielders by playing in a compact 5-4-1 formation with the two wide midfielders sitting closer to the two shielding midfield players. This style of play attempts to force Arsenal to build down the flanks through their full-backs and subsequently touchline press to win possession back quickly.
What Everton did instead pushed Walcott and Bolasie further forward to press Arsenal’s early buildup and force mistakes when they attempted progression into the half spaces. By pushing the wide midfielders into the wing space, Everton left their two central midfielders isolated out of possession. We can already see clear structural problems in their defensive shape: when the two wing backs drop deep to form a 5-man back line, there is a lack of cover in the wide areas. It is expected that the two defensive midfielders (Morgan Schneiderlin and Idrissa Gueye) would shift laterally to cover the ball-side spaces and cut off access to the vertical passing lines. Instead, they retained their position and assumed others would fill the gaps.
Everton’s pressing strategy did not help either as it seemed to move between several different systems, sometimes position-oriented and others man-oriented. The mass confusion among defenders created cascading effects all over the pitch and Mangala was an easy culprit. Considering that this was his first match for Everton, he was all over the place and caught constantly straying out of position to man-mark Arsenal’s midfield runners. For the first goal, he unnecessarily followed Ramsey’s run through the channel. Williams and Schneiderlin were forced to cover the space and a well-timed diagonal run by Mkhitaryan dragged both wide. Aubameyang simply dropped deep, played a one-time flick to the Armenian into space for an easy assist. Throughout the sequence, Mangala, for some unknown reason, is man-marking Ramsey instead of dropping deep to fill the space Williams was forced to cover. A clear lack of communication amongst the defenders allowed Arsenal to exert influences as the match progressed.
Arsenal’s Fluidity Stymies the Toffees
Everton’s defensive weaknesses meant they struggled to cope with Arsenal’s off-ball fluidity. The 3 forwards – Alex Iwobi, Mesut Ozil, and Henrikh Mkhitaryan – constantly interchanged positions behind the opposition midfield pairing, drifting into pockets of space in order to receive the ball and turn quickly into the final third. Mkhitaryan was particularly influential as he provided the necessary support to create ball-side overloads. A lack of defensive cover and an unwillingness to abandon their shape gave the Armenian ample space to be a threat when Arsenal moved into the final third.
Arsenal’s between the lines movement was exploited again and again as they attempted to stretch Everton’s defensive line. One of their favorite movements early on was off-ball diagonal runs across the back line, preferably from left-to-right. Both Iwobi and Mkhitaryan constantly flooded these channels, forcing the central defenders into a conundrum: abandon position to follow the runner or prioritize shape. Williams, in particular, seemed confused as to whether he should move quickly across to cover.
Here we see the movement of Iwobi across the defense as he looks to exploit the space in the channel between Williams and Mangala. As he makes his run, Aubameyang drops deep into the central space while Monreal makes a blindside run on the far side. Iwobi’s movement pins the defense as they prioritize sustaining a low block, leaving threats elsewhere on the pitch.
Arsenal’s early goals only exasperated Everton’s defensive woes as their game plan of defending deep and counterattacking was no longer a viable strategy. The midfield was forced to push further upfield while the defense failed to cover the space by pushing forward themselves. Ozil and Mkhitaryan feasted on the space in front of the defense knowing that the opposition midfield would struggle to follow them laterally. All it took was simple vertical passes into the half-spaces to access the final third and attack at speed.
As the match progressed the quality of Arsenal’s attack began to stress Everton’s defensive shape. The addition of Aubameyang in the first 11 provided a threat in behind that Arsenal has not had from a center forward in some time. Most importantly, the addition of Mkhitaryan has added a secondary source of creativity outside the brilliance of Ozil. Teams cannot focus solely on Ozil anymore as Mkhitaryan possess a similar skill set to unlock stubborn defenses. The Armenian proved influential as his off-ball movement frequently found space in dangerous areas.
The second half saw Arsenal take their foot off the pedal yet their progress will not be measured by the listlessness that occurred during that half. To prove that this attacking unit can really sustain a push towards the end of the season, the next fixture against Tottenham will surely be the ultimate test.