Arsenal suffered only their second defeat of the season in a match that many would probably agree was their most frustrating performance. To say things weren’t clicking was an understatement and it will be lost on no one that three points dropped at the hands of relegation-scrapping Everton stings more as points most won’t have pre-penned as potential trouble.
Playing Everton away from home has become a trap for Arsenal in recent history, and this match turned out to be no different.
If there is one aspect to hold onto, it’s that the performance we saw has not been a reflection of this team’s form and habits. Teams lose games. Looking up and down the table, only Newcastle has lost fewer games than Arsenal, but they have also drawn a whopping ten matches. Manchester City has dropped unexpected points, Manchester United has proven to be a streaky team, and there is some solace to be found in this single match not defining this team.
However, the role it plays in Arsenal’s season will remain to be seen. From a title challenging perspective, it matters more how Arsenal respond against Brentford and attempt to recollect form moving toward their date with Manchester City at The Emirates to prevent an elongated slide. Perhaps the more worrisome result of this match would be the emboldenment of ‘weaker’ teams being handed a blueprint to raise confidence in beating Arsenal themselves.
As the season goes on and teams in the lower echelons of the league table become simultaneously desperate to avoid relegation and more content with any points, even if it means a divergence from their normal styles of play, Everton — and Newcastle — have outlined a strategy for stymieing the Gunner’s attack.
The Sean Dyche style of play is well known. You know exactly what you’re going to get when you’re playing against them. Even in the lead up to the match, footage from the Everton camp showing Dyche putting his new players through a midseason Bleep test, and there wasn’t a single surprised person in the world.
Everyone knows he is going to get his side organized defensively, going to deploy two banks of diligent defenders, and push his team to graft, compete physically, and kick and harry opposition players. It’s as if his philosophy is, “in a world of people that want to make the game art, I’m going to remind them it’s a physical sport simply to be won”.
It’s one thing to talk about Everton getting ‘the new manager bounce’, it’s another thing to actually get one. A sentiment voiced by Arteta after the match.
“You have to give credit to Sean and the team at Everton, because it’s one thing saying it and another doing it, and I think they did it really well today.”
There were many facets of Arsenal’s play that weren’t up to snuff with a side chasing a title, but the game was really won and lose in the midfield. Arsenal were completely overrun in the center of the park as Dyche turned to extremely athletic, defensive-minded, and hardworking midfielders with experience in organizing a rock-solid barricade.
Doucoure, Gueye, Onana, and even Alex Iwobi have experience playing as defensive midfield leaders, and all are highly mobile in how they shift side to side and swarm oppositions. Backing them up with plenty of Premier League experience in the form of Seamus Coleman, Conor Coady, James Tarkowski, Jordan Pickford is right out of chapter 1 in the book of Dyche Team Turnaround Tactics.
Everton’s system found success on the day in a few key areas:
- A mid-block that shielded the backline and forced Arsenal’s midfield backward or into uncomfortable, rushed situations
- This system denied the vertical ball into Eddie’s feet and boxed out Ødegaard to reduce the touches he had around the box
- Because Arsenal were denied access to central areas, they were forced to funnel into the wings where Everton were diligent in double and triple teaming wingers
- As frustration built, Arsenal had to become more daring and attempted to force play into tight passing areas
- From any change in possession, Everton denied a real ability to press or counter-press by hitting the transition early, content to let Calvert-Lewin chase or settle for a clearance
With a perfect storm of hearty home-crowd atmosphere, all the energy to save their season, and the athleticism to make things happen, Everton had all the impetus to earn the right to win across the full ninety minutes.
They left Arsenal looking meek and slow on the ball, without answers to the questions being asked of them. When Arsenal did navigate their way through, they snatched at chances with eyes wide shut and lacked the precision necessary on the day.
On a day where Arsenal were always going to need to probe to find a weakness, their slow play couldn’t find the line between patience and undemanding. Their protracted switches of play and slower ball movement allowed Everton’s midfield to simply shift side to side with little stress to their structure.
This, of course, left the game open for Arsenal to be suckered on a counter or hit on a set piece, which is exactly what happened. It was a perfect match script for a Sean Dyche win, and it’s hard to argue they didn’t deserve something for their efforts.
Arsenal needs to find a solution before others exploit them
Unfortunately for Arsenal, this is not the first time this season they have found themselves frustrated by a diligently organized, mobile mid-block. While it was executed differently — and a little deeper — Newcastle also found success attacking Arsenal’s midfield and backline higher up the pitch.
As I said after the Newcastle match, not every team in the league is going to have the athletically gifted player profiles on hand to execute such a strategy, but there’s plenty of teams who will watch this and be willing to give it a try.
It’s fair to say this match is an exception not a rule, given how good Arsenal have been all year. But they will still need to find solutions to mid-block formations and midfields that are unwilling to allow players like Partey, Xhaka, or Zinchenko to operate while simultaneously able to flood the wings with defenders to shut down Saka and Martinelli.
A few aspects to consider for solutions.
- Jesus helps here. It’s nots a knock on Eddie, nor is he at fault for the result by any means, but Jesus is more dynamic and capable of interchanging with those around him. Eddie remains very central in the areas he’s comfortable in, but when the team gets stagnant, he gets stagnant and neither end up helping the other. Jesus is an all-action playmaker and difference, he just is.
- Odegaard has been great this year, but he does have quiet games in which he is boxed out. Hopefully this is a small part of this growth trajectory and an aspect that he grows out of with more experience, but
- Yesterday felt like a real opportunity to involve overlapping wingers to reduce the isolation Martinelli and Saka face. Given how inverted Zinchenko players, Martinelli is naturally isolated on the wings. At the beginning of the season, this was alleviated with the way Gabi and Jesus interacted, but that option isn’t on the field anymore. Against both Everton and Newcastle, Arsenal were stumped entirely on the wings and incapable of routinely creating through Saka and Martinelli the way they want. Arteta will need to scheme ways to help with that.
- It’s been a long time since we have called Arteta’s style rigid — because it’s not — but Everton forced Arsenal to play in the same way time and time again. One very rare occasions did we see Arsenal attempt to do things differently and force Everton to adjust. On most occasions, Arsenal moved through their progressions, and fell into the same areas that Everton were willing to concede time and time again. It started to feel inflexible and uncreative.
How Arsenal respond versus Brentford is all the players should be focused on. The second half of the season hasn’t started the way anyone wanted, but there’s eighteen more matches to be played and five point cushion on top of the table. But two teams, on very opposite sides of the table, have figured out methods for causing Arsenal a lot of problems.
Mid-blocks aren’t the most common style of play in the Premier League, more common in other European leagues, but as the talent rises across the leagues, even weaker teams have the players to effectively adopt if there is a chance to grab a few extra points that may save them from relegation. Many teams will come into matches believing themselves unlikely to beat Arsenal, but could be buoyed up by seeing a blueprint of success they can replicate.
Having the answer to the problems posed by Everton and Newcastle has to be something in Arteta’s plans.