As the ball was bundled home from Mikel Arteta, you could sense Roberto Martinez’s Everton were really back in business. Seamus Coleman juggling the ball down the right channel, three goals up, now a point away with a game to spare from a Champions League spot. Five years (and a day) later, the same fixture on the same match day couldn’t have been more different. Everton are now under their fourth manager from that day, twenty points different and repairing themselves from one of the biggest self-destruct seasons witnessed in the English top flight. Arsenal are going through changes of their own, adapting from Arsène Wenger’s 22-year reign as manager, but from first glance they seem to have held their own under Unai Emery.
The two teams meet up, just six games left to play of the Premier League season. Arsenal have lost just two league games since the turn of the year, against West Ham and Manchester City, having conceded just once in their last two league games. After a disastrous winter run, the mood is more upbeat, two wins on the bounce (including Chelsea) and the potential of seventh place being open for a European spot.
Arsenal currently sit fourth place in the Premier League table, just a point below Tottenham, level on points with Chelsea and two points away from sixth-placed Manchester United. With three points separating four teams, the race for Champions League spots is very much on. Unai Emery often has Arsenal in a 4-2-3-1 system but has been very adaptable in his tactics throughout the season, often switching to three-at-the-back formations – which he did in Arsenal’s last match-day, a 2-0 victory over Newcastle. Full-backs are often high up the pitch, allowing wingers to drop in the final third to link with the striker.
The Gunners are very good at progressing the ball out wide, just 24% of their attacks are built in the middle of the pitch, according to WhoScored. With such buildup through both channels, it’s easy to see why Sead Kolasniac is one of their best creators (five assists, total 6.65 xA). They are capable of making progress forward because the centre-backs have a high number of passing lanes forward. When Nacho Monreal is in possession, he often has a full-back (Kolasniac), midfielder (Granit Xhaka) and winger to pass to for attacking transitions to develop.
The defenders also have multiple options when playing three-at-the-back formations, allowing wing-backs to make the same runs as they would in other systems. So far this season, Arsenal have proven to be one of the best ball-progressing teams in the league, nowhere near the levels of Liverpool and Manchester City, but in comparison to the rest of the teams near them, only Chelsea have a better Ball Advancement Rating.
Off the ball, Arsenal are less impressive. Emery’s team like to switch formation into a 4-4-2 defence, but with such a high line they can be easily exposed; especially with centre-backs that don’t have much pace. Only Manchester United have conceded a higher xGA (44.74 goals this season) than Arsenal (42.62 goals this season) out of the “Big Six”. Expected Goals have been very inconsistent all season with The Gunners, conceding 2.37 xG against Solskjaer’s United – but kept a clean sheet, whilst scoring five away to Fulham back in October from just 1.14 xG.
In terms of scoring Expected Goals, Arsenal have the biggest difference in comparison to actual goals in the Premier League. Emery’s team have scored 11 more goals than what they should have, according to Understat. Extremely lucky or world-class finishing?
To get to know more about Arsenal, I spoke to fellow Twitter-enthusiast Alex Burns ahead of Sunday’s game:
TA: How well have Arsenal transitioned from the Wenger-era?
AB: It was always going to be difficult and starting off with Man City and Chelsea was tough, even if we did deserve at least a point at Stamford Bridge, and the 22-game unbeaten run did hide a lot of the cracks, which included scrappy home wins over Watford and Everton, as well as earning a point at home to Wolves even when we probably didn’t deserve it. However, coming from behind to win against Tottenham was an unbelievable performance and beating Chelsea and Man United has shown we have a bit of grit and fight back, I’d like us to be better away from home but overall it has been a good for a first season, even if Emery has his flaws.
You’ve always had a good record against Everton and have scored a good amount of goals against us as well. Are another three points expected on Sunday to strengthen your top-four race?
I’d love to say we’re going to win with confidence but genuinely I think we will struggle. We’ve scored 6 and 5 at Goodison Park in the past but it’s a very tough place to go and we found that out in December 2016 when we lost 2-1, and with Everton improving of late, it makes me less confident. But we are in good form and in our last away game, 1-1 at Tottenham, we played very well, so if we can take the encouragement from that game, we should win.
You have an amazing frontline with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette. Who else in the Arsenal team should Everton fans be aware of?
If Granit Xhaka plays, Arsenal tick so much better. Genuinely he is one of the most underrated players in the Premier League, he has a reputation for a player who often gives goals away and lots of silly fouls but last season he was being asked to play in a shielding role but this season he has been a real dictator in our team, especially when partnered with Torreira, and when he plays well the team usually does too. I would really love more people to appreciate him because he’s a top midfield player.
How are Everton going to get a result on Sunday? We were left with a sour-taste after some good chances at the Emirates.
Everton need to attack Arsenal, starting on the front foot, getting crosses in and not giving the ball away, we have not been amazing away from home this season and nor in defensive areas have we been good so if Everton can put us under pressure that is where we may fall short.
Last but not least, what’s your prediction?
I wish I could say we are going to 5-2 again, but honestly, I think the start of 5 away matches in our last 7 games will be probably the toughest, Everton’s performances against West Ham and Chelsea were excellent and if they can replicate that, they will win. Emery has a big chance to earn his money here, a win here will really give fans true belief. Everton 2-1 Arsenal.
- Thanks to Alex for answering my questions, if you want to follow his Twitter, he is @alexburns1088.
Meanwhile, Marco Silva seems to have slowly started to turn the wheel back on track for Everton, wins against Chelsea and West Ham (as well as keeping clean sheets in both) have given everyone a much-needed confidence boost. We are still in our unbalanced 4-2-3-1, both our attacking players seem like they are starting to link more. Gylfi Sigurdsson had his best performance in an Everton shirt at the London Stadium, having completed 33 passes (much more than average), as well as creating five chances. The Toffees performance against West Ham was very impressive, using organised and well calculated counter-attacking to create overloads.
However, The Toffees recent form has been sparked by the influence of Bernard and Lucas Digne on the left-channel. Not only do they create chances (0.42 xA per game between them), but they heavily influence our progress forward and accessing the final third. Bernard is a winger every counter-attacking team would crave, often making one or two touches in transitions and linking with any player around him.
Against Arsenal, Everton will have to utilise Dominic Calvert-Lewin in the same way they have done in the past few matches. He is very effective against more ball-orientated teams with less-tall centre-backs. With him scanning between the lines and players making runs off him, we can have a good access in dangerous positions.
I’m expecting Arsenal to have control of possession, but both teams will create good opportunities. The Gunners aren’t a pressing team, but against their 3-4-3, they’ll have control and numbers in the middle third – which caused has caused us massive problems in previous matches (just look at the Wolves game).
Both sides are well capable of coming out with three points. Arsenal have a very, very strong record against us, winning seven of their last eight games against Everton. However, The Gunners are yet to keep a clean sheet away from home and won just one of their last eight away league games. This game is very unpredictable and an entertaining 90 minutes is ahead.
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Up the Toffees!