This weekend, Arsenal will face off against Everton in a match that marks a pivotal time in both the Gunner’s and the Toffee’s turbulent seasons. Both teams started the season with high hopes coming off summer transfer windows that saw the arrival of names worthy of sparking fan’s intrigue. Arsenal, of course, welcomed their record signing Pepe, Kieran Tierney, William Saliba who will join for good after this year, Dani Ceballos on loan, veteran David Luiz, and Gabriel Martinelli who has shocked everyone with his instant impact. Everton made a statement welcoming Moise Kean, Andre Gomes, Sidibe, and Arsenals’ very own Alex Iwobi to join Theo Walcott.
Both teams had reasons to be excited. After barely missing out on 7th place and the last Europa League spot for two straight years, Everton had high hopes these summer transfers would be the final pieces to their puzzle putting them back into European competitions. Arsenal were coming off their first year under Unai Emery having had an extremely frustrating end to their season, but had hopes their team could replicate their success without the end of year stumbles. This was not the case for either team.
By Christmas both teams had fired their coaches. Marco Silva lasted 15 matches resulting in 4 wins, 2 draws, and 9 losses. They had a -11 goal differential and had been outscored by 16 other teams in the Premier League. Their 14 points put Everton in the relegation zone and after an embarrassing 5-2 loss to their fierce rival Liverpool, Silva was unsurprisingly sacked.
In north London, Unai Emery was struggling to get Arsenal to perform anywhere near the level they should be playing. With confusion over what Emery wanted from the players, who was captaining the team, and what this team’s identity was, Arsenal fired Emery after failing to win in seven straight games, finding themselves in 8th place, and showing no signs of having any idea how to fix it.
However, as these two teams get ready to play for the second time this season, barely over two months since an uninspiring, 0 – 0 draw under interim managers, both teams look to be in remarkably better places – even if Arsenal aren’t in a better table position. Everton took a safer route and hired Carlo Ancelotti after he was rumored to have turned down the Arsenal job, while Arsenal looked to take a risk and bring in first-time manager Mikel Arteta. Both clubs are reaping some early benefits from the appointments.
Stats show that historically this weekend’s game is likely to be a good one – mostly for Arsenal. Arsenal have scored 107 goals against Everton – the most any team has scored against a single opponent – they have won the last 5 matchups at the Emirates between these two, and Arsenal v. Everton is tied for 5th as the most prolific matchup in the EPL. Given the pivotal point in both team’s seasons, the fact that in a recent interview Ancelotti stated that he “made the right choice” in turning Arsenal down for Everton to fuel some drama, and the remarkable turnaround these teams are seeing from their new managers, I thought I would take a look at these two managers and life under them for Everton and Arsenal.
Life in a New Regime: Carlo Ancelotti
Carlo Ancelotti, a player for the likes of Roma and Milan in his younger days, made the transition into coaching years ago and has seen himself manage ten clubs including: Juventus, Milan, Chelsea, Paris Saint-Germain, Real Madrid, and now Everton. He is known as a manager that has a special knack for coming into clubs that have a lot of the right pieces in place but are underperforming. He likes to be a player-pleaser that can turn toxic locker rooms into harmonious lineups and give struggling teams a real facelift and boost. Leading teams to 17 cups, including a Premier League with Chelsea, that is exactly what he will look to do with Everton.
Everton are a squad that have room for improvement, few would argue against that, but they are also a team that has talent in the squad. Given their struggles with a lineup that is simply underperforming what they are capable of, we can begin to understand why Ancelotti was drawn to the Toffees instead of Arsenal. Arteta is doing a fantastic job, but Arsenal are clearly missing a few pieces and players. Everton may not yet be a coach away from challenging for the Premier League title, but they are a coach away from challenging for a spot in Europe next year.
Given a side that was struggling to create end produce, Ancelloti arrived and made an impact. Before him, Everton were creating 10 chances per 90 minutes, now they are creating 11. Minimal on the surface but it needs to be tied in with the other boosts he is bringing in order to see this successful picture. Under Ancelotti, Everton possess the ball more and that possession is leading to more expected goals and actual goals. Under Silva, Everton scored 1.07 goals per 90 minutes and had an expected goals tally of 1.61 per 90. Under Ancelotti they have increased to 1.57 and 2.22, respectively. These stats are fantastic, but what really matters is that these boosts are leading to wins.
Since Ancelotti was hired, Everton have 5 wins, 3 draws, and 2 losses – to Manchester City and Liverpool. The 18 points have helped Everton shoot up the table and, with twelve games left, they sit in 9th place, 4 points back from 5th place and 5 points behind 4th to start the weekend. A remarkable turnaround that has put Everton back into contention.
Ancelotti has brought with him his usual 4-4-2 identity that morphs into a 3-4-1-2 as they get into the attack. Usually, as Everton gets on the ball and finds possession, you will see a winger like Iwobi or Bernard come central to fill in behind the front two in positions you would often see a number 10 play. This allows their outside backs to get up the field, into the attack, and favors the more direct style of play that Ancelotti brings. Ancelotti has been quoted before talking about the importance of possession, but only if it leads to something. This kind of quick play will be something Arsenal has to deal with in Everton’s effort to put Arsenal’s historically, shaky backline under pressure.
Although Ancelotti states that the claim he simply is a coach who “puts on the finishing touches” is false, he certainly appears to be benefitting from doing that early in his time at Everton. He has made his changes, won over the locker room and not to make it sound like he has only put “touches” of work into the team, but he is getting more from these players and finding winning form that aligns with that stereotype. They will want to continue their good form away at the Emirates.
Life in a New Regime: Mikel Arteta
Given the recent media attention that has been given to Arsenal players commenting on how much better life has been under Arteta and the excitement he has brought into the club, it is fitting to look at what surrounds it and what may be giving them this excitement.
In a similar, yet vastly different position from Ancelotti, Arteta was hired to not only turn things around at Arsenal but undertake the multi-year project of rebuilding the club. It wasn’t instant success in the form of results like Everton saw – although I contend that has more to do with the personnel missing in Arsenal’s team – but it was instantly noticeable in how they played. In fact, early on, Arteta’s point per game were actually lower than Emery’s gathering only 1.14 points per game after his first 7 matches, compared to Emery’s 1.38ppg.
However, the positives were in the performances. Knowing the major issue was the number of shots and goals Arsenal were conceding, Mikel came in and stopped the bleeding. In the twelve games under Arteta, Arsenal have conceded only 8 goals, 0.66 per game, and have 6 clean sheets. In those games they have given up 142 shots (11.8 spg). Remarkably better than Emery’s 16.7 shots per game average and 1.46 goals conceded per game. There are arguments to be made about the fact that this focus on defense has capped some of Arsenal’s attacking potential, and it’s not wrong, but that is certainly phase two of Arteta’s plan after fixing the most pressing issue.
After his first 7 games led to 5 more draws (13 total), it was clear they needed to put in some work to get the attack firing. With the EPL Winter Break, Arsenal traveled to Dubai and got some real time together to work on some of these things. Although a good chunk of the trip was focused on relaxing and resetting, there was believed to be some work done on how to bring attacking and defending balance to the team. Arteta may not look to play quite as directly as Ancelotti, but certainly believes that possession with a purpose is critical to success. Since working at the break, Arsenal have begun to show more attacking purpose resulting in a 4-0 thrashing of Newcastle and a mature, defensive 1-0 win over Olympiacos. Two positive signs as we move into the final third of the season.
Arsenal fans will enjoy the success, enjoy the feeling of being excited to watch their team compete again, and enjoy the potential they are seeing in their new leader – even if they know things are still a long way away from being complete. Players are happier, fans are happier, and performances are better. The results will come and now is the time they need to start coming. A win at the weekend would give Arsenal a third win in a row and see them continue to claw their way back into European contention.
Both teams have a lot to play for, both coaches have momentum they want to continue, and fans of both sides will look to see if their club made the right choice in who they hired. With both managers hired on almost the same day, their success and failures are intertwined and compared by those looking to see “what could have been”. They will want to make a statement, want 3 more precious points, and clubs will want vindication of their selections. There is little doubt that this time the game will look very different from two months ago and fans will enjoy that. Are we making too much of the comparison? Maybe, but that’s sports.