Arsenal 1-1 Everton: Everton passing impresses but Arsenal offer more pentration

December 9, 2013

The starting line-ups

Arsenal extended their lead at the top, while Everton extended the Premier League’s longest unbeaten run.

Arsene Wenger was still without Bacary Sagna, so Carl Jenkinson played instead, while Theo Walcott was still on the bench.

Roberto Martinez named an unchanged XI from the side that recorded a famous victory at Old Trafford in midweek.

Everton were highly impressive throughout the first half, although ended up searching for a late equaliser.

Everton possession

The key feature of the first half was Everton’s impressive possession play. They took the game to Arsenal, retaining the ball solidly and playing positive passes into the final third and pushing back Arsenal’s midfield. There was relatively little pressing from Arsenal, probably because they’re in the middle of three games in seven days, something Wenger has been complaining about this week – he was therefore keen for his players to conserve energy.

But allowing Everton such time on the ball caused Arsenal to be pushed back into their own half. There’s an interesting mixture of structure and fluidity about the Everton side – there’s a solid defensive ’square’, who all rarely stray from their position. Elsewhere, players are given more positional freedom, and particularly notable was the adventurous role played by the two full-backs, who pushed forward to force Arsenal’s wide players back into their own defensive third – and neither Jack Wilshere nor Santi Cazorla offered a serious counter-attacking threat.

Pienaar-Oviedo

One of the key features of Everton’s play throughout the past few seasons has been Steven Pienaar’s relationship down the left with Baines, so the absence of the England left-back seemed a huge problem for Everton.

But Oviedo has proved more than a capable stand-in – he scored on his first two starts in Baines’ absence, against Stoke and Manchester United, and throughout this game provided constant overlapping. The two most frequent pass combinations were Pienaar to Oviedo, and Oviedo to Pienaar, despite the South African being removed after 70 minutes.

The Costa Rican doesn’t have Baines’ crossing ability, and Everton created few chances from this zone, but it was probably their best area in terms of moving the ball forward from midfield.

Barkley

Everton’s outstanding player here was Ross Barkley – impressive away at the Emirates for the second consecutive season. He played at the top of the midfield triangle and received positive forward passes from Gareth Barry and James McCarthy.

Barkley’s main quality is his positional sense. He’s always trying to find pockets of space away from his direct opponent, particularly obvious during the 3-3 draw with Liverpool when Lucas Leiva had such a difficult game he was removed by Brendan Rodgers (despite Liverpool being on the back foot) because he was in danger of being dismissed. Mikel Arteta had a similarly tough task today against Barkley – he was always being dragged around, with Everton getting both Kevin Mirallas and, in particular, Pienaar into narrow positions to overload Arsenal between the lines.

He generally received the ball in the channels rather than directly in the centre of the pitch, and kept winning fouls.

The first promising moment came after five minutes when Arteta was drawn up the pitch for an Everton counter-attack, attempting to shut down Gareth Barry. Barkley drifted away from him into space, and drove forward in a huge pocket of space in front of the Arsenal back four – Barkley was allowed to run for 35 yards without a challenge, and after slipping in Mirallas, almost found himself on the end of the return pass.

Arteta exposed?

Here, Arsenal were troubled by Aaron Ramsey’s advanced positioning. Although on paper this is a 4-2-3-1, Ramsey’s attack-minded role (and Mesut Ozil’s advanced positioning too) often makes it seem like Arsenal are playing a 4-1-3-1-1. This has generally worked very nicely, but at times against good technical sides – notably Liverpool and Everton – Arteta has been forced to cover a huge amount of lateral space in front of the defence, and has needed a partner alongside him.

A side’s strength can also be their weakness – Arsenal’s best feature this season has been Ramsey’s stunning record in the final third, and while he’s currently the Premier League’s most prolific tackler, that’s not necessarily a reflection of reliable defensive positioning. Like when Arsenal were leading Liverpool 1-0 and under pressure as the opposition attacked through the centre, Ramsey could spent more time alongside Arteta, helping Arsenal weather the storm.

Arsenal promising down right

On the subject of a side’s area of strength also being their weakness, Pienaar’s narrowness and Baines’ advanced positioning has often made Everton vulnerable to quick attacks down that flank in recent years.

Arsenal were without Sagna, who has provided a steady stream of crosses so far this season – he may have punished Everton more down that side. But the space was towards that flank, regardless of whether it was Wilshere or Cazorla on that side – and, on one occasion, Ozil had oceans of room but Cazorla played a poor pass in the opposite direction.

There were also some promising moments when Jenkinson moved forward, too, mainly because it felt like Everton didn’t consider him an attacking threat, and left him free. This was evident towards the end of the first period, and when he crossed towards Wilshere who set up a headed chance for Cazorla at the start of the second.

But Everton countered into Jenkinson’s space (with Phil Jagielka, oddly) for a Pienaar chance – and after that, Jenkinson largely stayed at home.

Arsenal combinations

Arsenal’s main problem throughout the first half was an inability to work the ball forward into the final third. With Everton dominating possession and Arsenal’s passing regularly letting them down, the home side’s most logical approach was to play on the break. Without a great deal of pace, however, they found this difficult – a good piece of play by Ozil, bypassing two opponents on the left towards the end of the first half, created their first good attack and kick-started their performance.

On the few occasions Arsenal did work the ball into the final third, they were considerably more dangerous than Everton – they got in behind the opposition three times towards the end of the first half, being thwarted by three fine pieces of goalkeeping from Tim Howard (although there was also an offside flag up on one occasion). The American goalkeeper has recently stated his admiration for Hugo Lloris’ sweeping, and although his saves here weren’t spectacular, his proactive positioning deserves real credit.

There were two main reasons for Arsenal offering more penetration and better combination. First, they have attacking midfielders who are simply more creative and technical than Everton’s – the away side lacks a player that can slide through-balls between opponents in the manner of Ozil or Cazorla. Barkley, for all his quality, doesn’t offer great penetration for the time being, having not recorded a Premier League assist.

Second, Olivier Giroud plays as more of a pivot than Lukaku. The Belgian makes constant runs in behind the defence, which are often dangerous, but Giroud’s one-touch link-up play encourages midfield runners to get up in support, and therefore Arsenal’s passing moves were less predictable.

Substitutions

It’s extremely rare to see Arsene Wenger make a treble substitution – but that’s what he did here. Ramsey, Wilshere and Cazorla departed with Mathieu Flamini, Theo Walcott and Tomas Rosicky all on. In all probability, this was a change made because of fitness concerns rather than pure tactics.

Nevertheless, it did change Arsenal’s system. While the replacements all played in the same positions as the players they replaced, they brought different qualities: Walcott offered more natural width down the right, Rosicky more energy and directness from the left, and Flamini pressed higher up than Ramsey, playing in advance of Arteta (although clearly, this didn’t solve the problem of Arteta being overrun).

It offered Arsenal more forward thrust. Rosicky and Walcott played a part in the goal, and while a Walcott back-post header probably wasn’t what Wenger had in mind when he made the switch, as a natural forward he was at least in that position, whereas Wilshere probably would have been much deeper.

Martinez simply replaced his wide players – Leon Osman for Pienaar and Gerard Deulofeu for Mirallas, and while there were some brief positional adjustments, Deulofeu simply came up with an excellent equaliser from the right.

It’s worth considering whether Wenger would have introduced an extra left-back, Nacho Monreal, if he’d had one substitute remaining – that’s been his favoured defensive change this season, and may have given Arsenal protection down the zone they eventually conceded from.

Conclusion

Everton come out of this match with the greater credit, having dominated possession away at the league leaders. It’s worth considering that Arsenal didn’t press heavily, and invited more pressure than you’d expect, but Everton’s ability to dominate the centre of the pitch and move the ball into the final third was very impressive. Barkley’s movement allowed others space, although Everton lacked penetration and didn’t create serious chances despite their excellent opening.

Arsenal have become more pragmatic, solid and tactically astute this season, and Wenger will be pleased his defence stood strong despite constant first half pressure. There was a lack of counter-attacking potential on the break to justify such a deep approach, however, and this emphasised the need for a fully fit Walcott to give Arsenal an extra attacking dimension.


Arsenal 1-1 Everton: Everton passing impresses but Arsenal offer more pentration

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