Everton 3-0 Arsenal: Everton maintain their challenge for fourth place
Everton outfoxed Arsenal with a surprise strategy and some clever movement.
Roberto Martinez wasn’t able to welcome back Phil Jagielka, but John Stones has been excellent as his replacement. Ross Barkley was left out, with Leon Osman favoured – but Osman barely lasted ten minutes before getting injured, and Barkley replaced him.
Arsene Wenger is without the preferred left side of his defence, as well as Mesut Ozil, Jack Wilshere and Theo Walcott. Aaron Ramsey was on the bench after three months out, alongside Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who had been expected to return.
Everton have often won games late on this season, but here they took command in the first half and sealed the contest on the hour mark.
Surprise Everton system
On paper, Everton’s line-up appeared to be their usual 4-2-3-1, with Steven Naismith – a regular sub – a surprise selection, and set to play on the opposite wing to Kevin Mirallas. Leon Osman was seemingly the number ten behind Romelu Lukaku.
Instead, it was a completely different system. The shape of the midfield was different, with Osman (and then Barkley) a left-sided central midfielder in a trio, with Gareth Barry as the deepest, often dropping between the centre-backs to help Everton pass out from the back. He does that in a 4-2-3-1, too, but it was more obvious in this 4-3-3.
More significant, however, was the approach upfront – where Mirallas was on the left, Naismith through the middle, and Romelu Lukaku wide on the right, a completely different system from anything Everton have previously used this season.
Naismith false nine
This was a brave call by Martinez in such a big game, but the approach worked perfectly. The most interesting factor of the system was Naismith as a false nine, playing closer to the Arsenal central midfielders than the centre-backs, but making excellent runs to tempt Thomas Vermaelen, in particular, out of position. He was basically the forward point of a diamond midfield.
Naismith has previously only played upfront for Everton in an emergency, when Lukaku and others have been unavailable, but his movement and link-up play has always been extremely impressive, and it’s remarkable how Martinez has managed to turn a hard-working but limited player, something of jack-of-all-trades and a ‘willing runner’, into such an effective tactical weapon. Arsenal never got to grips with him, and although he opened the scoring with a cool finish, he was primarily the catalyst for Everton’s attacks with his decoy running, rather than with his direct contributions. Look how he always collected the ball in the channels, rather than between the centre-backs, despite theoretically playing in the centre of the pitch.
As well as tempting the Arsenal centre-backs up the pitch, he also helped Everton retain width by darting into wide positions when Mirallas and, in particular, Lukaku came inside.
This meant, even more surprisingly, that Lukaku was deployed on the right flank. He won an aerial duel against Nacho Monreal within the first 30 seconds, and stayed extremely high up the pitch on that side, more a right-sided forward than a right-winger.
His lack of defensive ability meant some of Arsenal’s best opportunities came when Monreal sporadically overlapped down that side – the left-back was caught offside at one point – but overall Everton gained more than they suffered in this position. Three of the passes that created Lukaku’s changes are very similar – quick switches from the opposite flank.
To understand quite why Arsenal suffered so much from the movement upfront, it’s worth considering how they were being exposed in another area of the pitch – their right flank. There was great fluidity in this position, with Santi Cazorla starting there, but Tomas Rosicky and – at times – Lukas Podolski all covering that side. With Cazorla and Rosicky drifting inside into central positions, there was space for Leighton Baines to exploit by moving forward in possession.
This meant that Bacary Sagna was forced forward to deal with the left-back, which was problematic in itself considering his primary job was to mark Mirallas (the only one of Everton’s forwards who wasn’t in an entirely surprising position, and therefore with an obvious opponent). But it also meant Arsenal were forced to cope three-on-three at the back, and Everton’s clever movement was always likely to cause them problems.
This situation was obvious within the first six minutes. Baines was in possession, Sagna moved forward, and Arsenal were effectively now defending with a back three. Mirallas checked to see the situation in the centre, and made a decoy run towards the left touchline to drag Mertesacker into the right-back zone. Vermaelen was watching Lukaku behind, which meant a huge space opened up for Naismith in the inside-left channel – but he misplayed his attempted square pass to Lukaku, once Vermaelen had darted towards the Scot.
This set the tone, and was a microcosm of Everton’s approach for the rest of the game.
Exactly the same thing happened for Everton’s first goal: Baines on the ball and Sagna up the pitch. Mirallas running towards the touchline to drag Mertesacker away from the centre, leaving Vermaelen and Monreal two against two versus Naismith and Lukaku. This time Baines curled a fantastic pass in behind the defence for Lukaku, who had his shot saved, and Naismith converted the rebound. Arsenal can’t say they weren’t warned.
The second goal wasn’t dissimilar, in that originated from the left-back zone, where Baines was taking a throw-in. This time Naismith and Mirallas combined between the lines, before switching the play out wide quickly to Lukaku, who cut inside, beat Monreal and Vermaelen easily before finishing with his left foot.
The third? Well, this time Baines wasn’t involved – but Sagna was tackled in the opposition half by Mirallas, who broke quickly. It was more 4 v 4 than 3 v 3, with Barkley and Mikel Arteta involved. Again, Mertesacker had been pulled out towards the touchline to cover the space left by Sagna, and it’s into the space between he and Vermaelen that Mirallas played the crucial ball to Naismith – Szczesny half-saved, and a combination of Mirallas and Arteta’s desperate tackle sent the rebound into the goal.
There were key three factors: Sagna always being brought out of the defence, because of the lack of protection from ahead, Mirallas and Naismith making clever runs to bring the centre-backs out of position, and Lukaku storming past Monreal repeatedly.
It’s also worth outlining Everton’s discipline without the ball. Naismith dropped off, often alongside Barkley to become a fourth central midfielder, with Mirallas and (to a lesser extent) Lukaku shuttling back to defend the wide zones – look at Mirallas’ recoveries below. Everton were a genuine 4-6-0 for long periods without the ball.
They pressed heavily when Arsenal played the ball into the midfield zone, and made some particularly strong tackles in the first half. Arsenal seemed unwilling to bypass this press, too – long balls were rarely hit towards Olivier Giroud, and there was little threat of pace in behind, to bypass Everton’s 10 outfielders in one go.
Martinez’s approach was a genuine surprise and it demonstrated his ability to make clever tactical decisions – he preaches possession football, but he doesn’t leave it at that. He stresses the importance of a positive overall approach, but is capable of varying small factors to suit the specific challenge of the opponent.
Naismith’s intelligent role was crucial in making Arsenal’s back four uncomfortable, although it might have been Lukaku’s positioning which Martinez thought about first – Arsenal’s left half of the defence was weakened, after all.
For Arsenal, it’s another away defeat against a big side. Again, they struggled against an aggressive midfield press and direct attacking based around intelligent movement, and now fourth place is very much up for grabs.
Everton 3-0 Arsenal: Everton maintain their challenge for fourth place