Arsenal 2-1 Everton: Everton cope with Arsenal’s plan A, but not their plan B

February 2, 2011

The starting line-ups

A very interesting game that Arsene Wenger managed to turn around with a second half change in formation.

Arsene Wenger was without Samir Nasri, and chose Tomas Rosicky rather than Andrei Arshavin on the left. The rest of the side was as expected.

David Moyes made no changes from the side that drew with Chelsea at the weekend.

The opening to the game was as expected – Arsenal dominated possession and territory, but their passing was sloppy when they got into the final third of the pitch, and they frequently gave the ball away before putting the Everton defence under any pressure.

In fact, they struggled to create chances throughout the first half, as Everton played compact (from back to front) and narrow (from left to right) and made it difficult for Arsenal to play through them. This, combined with the strong physical presence of Marouane Fellaini and Jack Rodwell in the centre, meant Arsenal’s passing game suffered. Mikel Arteta gave the best passing performance of the first half.

Everton cut off balls out wide

Everton’s strategy for nullifying Arsenal’s wingers was particularly interesting (see diagram below). The two Everton wide midfielders, Seamus Coleman and Diniyar Bilyaletdinov, dropped deep and let Arsenal’s full-backs have the ball, instead focusing upon cutting off the passing angle from Arsenal’s central midfielders (Alex Song and Jack Wilshere) to their wide men (Theo Walcott and Rosicky). This meant Arsenal frequently looked indecisive when they had the ball in the centre of the pitch, and often knocked passes out to the full-backs in non-threatening positions.

Everton's wingers cut off balls from Arsenal's central midfielders to their wingers, and left the Arsenal full-backs free

When this pattern became established after 20 minutes or so, Rosicky and Walcott found themselves having to adjust their position to try and pick up the ball. There were only two real options, either a run inside (a) – which played into Everton’s hands because it meant their narrow shape prevented purposeful attacks, or a move into a deeper position (b) – which obviously resulted in Walcott and Rosicky picking the ball up a long way from goal.

Everton were effectively using two players to marshal Arsenal’s wide players, and therefore the full-backs had an onus to become involved in attacking play as they saw so much of the ball – for example, down Arsenal’s right (where, as in the previous meeting between these two sides, they focused their passing) Bacary Sagna played twice as many passes as Walcott (see Chalkboards below).

Moyes switched Arteta and Rodwell midway through the first half, and this worked well as Rodwell outpaced Fabregas to a through ball. Everton played mainly on the counter-attack, and went ahead after a quick break, through Louis Saha’s controversial goal.

Second half

For the second period, Moyes asked Rodwell to man-mark Fabregas. Rodwell stuck to the Spaniard more tightly than you’ll see in any Premier League game this season, and the use of Arteta ahead meant that when Rodwell followed Fabregas into deep positions, Arteta could drop in to cover any forward runs from Wilshere or Abou Diaby, who had replaced Song at half time. Fabregas’ technical ability meant that Arsenal could still play him the ball in tight situations and he’d be able to find a sideways pass, but Rodwell’s presence meant he never had time to look up, nor space to play a forward pass. With Arsenal’s wingers nullified as outlined above, and Fabregas tightly man-marked, Arsenal lacked creativity and didn’t look like getting back in the game.

Wenger replaced Wilshere with Bendtner and moved Fabregas deeper

Wenger replaced Rosicky with Arshavin in a straight swap, but the key move came on 69 minutes, when Wilshere departed and Nicklas Bendtner came on to play upfront, with van Persie dropping slightly deeper. The key change here, however, was that Fabregas was forced to play alongside Diaby as one of the deeper midfielders.

Interestingly, as the change was made, Arteta, Fellaini and Rodwell had a conversation in the centre of the pitch about how they were going to adjust (presumably, who would be picking up Fabregas) – but whatever conclusion they came to, it didn’t work – within two minutes Fabregas had space for the first time in the second half, and chipped the ball over the defence for Arshavin to score.

The second goal came soon after – Laurent Koscielny’s header from Robin van Persie’s inswinging corner (very similar to the goal Everton scored against Chelsea last weekend) – and then Arsenal had to sit back and defend. Having gone to an attack-minded system and used all three substitutes, they didn’t look entirely comfortable with Fabregas and Diaby screening the back four, but held out. Moyes replaced Coleman with Victor Anichebe and (slightly strangely) Phil Neville with Phil Jagielka, but only threatened from a lone set piece late on.


Change in formation on 69 minutes, first goal on 70 minutes, second goal on 75 minutes. The first goal certainly wouldn’t have happened had Wenger not made that substitution, the second goal was more a case of momentum (and bad defending), but credit must be given to Wenger for the brave substitution which resulted in Fabregas finding more room.

Until then, Moyes’ gameplan had worked very well. His plan to deal with Arsenal’s initial shape was spot on, but he didn’t adapt to Arsenal’s change quickly enough. The Arteta-Rodwell-Fellaini conversation suggests it was left to them to sort things out, but just two minutes without clear instructions ended up costing Everton.


Everton’s narrow defending – all interceptions in the centre of the pitch

by Guardian Chalkboards

Sagna seeing much more of the ball than Walcott – 63 passes attempted compared to 31

by Guardian Chalkboards

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