Arsene Wenger and Arsenal face a critical challenge to hold their season together against an Everton team on the march with a manager whose reputation continues to soar.
For so long defying the many sceptics to remain firmly in the title race, Arsenal’s season has come apart at the seams in all-too predictable fashion. The mental and tactical resolve spectacularly lacking against the Premier League’s best, their confidence took a battering that continued to hamper them in their subsequent fixtures. Nine points from their last eight games, four points from their last five, is scant remuneration at this stage of the season.
In contrast, just a few weeks ago, Everton’s hopes of Champions League hopes looked to have gone. The loss of Romelu Lukaku proved costly with Everton scoring just once in the four games he missed, losing three of them. Still, it was obvious that there was nothing wrong with the way the rest of their game was functioning. Upon Lukaku’s return to spearhead the attack, Everton have won five league matches on the bounce. They go into Sunday’s clash at Goodison Park with the chance to go just one point behind fourth-place Arsenal and still with a game in hand.
When it was revealed at Roberto Martinez’s unveiling as Everton manager last June that he had promised to get the club into the Champions League, there were plenty who sniggered. Skepticism still surrounded a coach who had just won the FA Cup but who had battled against relegation with Wigan for four years before finally succumbing to the drop.
Yet, his fine record thus far at Everton should be no surprise. Look past the results, which so many in soccer fail to do, and it was clear that Martinez had the capabilities to go to the top. While committed to playing attractive soccer, Martinez was always tactically flexible. Some of his best results with Wigan, in beating Liverpool and Manchester United to help avoid relegation in 2012 came when playing a back three. While he has been consistent with a 4-2-3-1 at Everton, he has consistently made an impact with his substitutions.
Never was this more apparent than last week at Craven Cottage when Steven Naismith was introduced to a goalless game at half-time and scored once as well as having a shot deflected in for another. Martinez’s other substitutes Aiden McGeady and Kevin Mirallas combined for Everton’s other goal in a 3-1 win. Arsenal know all about Martinez’s ability to positively affect games, given that it was another of his favorite substitutes, Gerard Deulofeu, who earned Everton a fully deserved point at the Emirates last December with a fantastic strike.
In contrast, Arsenal have often paid the price of late for their manager showing himself to be an ideologue. Wenger’s broader philosophy on the game is to be lauded and has had a hugely positive impact on English soccer, but his refusal to mediate the constant desire for style has been costly. In the 6-0 defeat to Chelsea that proved the death knell to Arsenal’s title hopes, a central midfield duo of Mikel Arteta and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was selected and were predictably and completely overrun in the opening half. Curiously Mathieu Flamini, the only player who brings true tenacity to the midfield, was on the bench.
The frustrating aspect is that Wenger showed with his all-conquering sides in the first half of his reign that he could get his teams to dig in when it mattered. Such qualities were even seen this season when Arsenal went away to Borussia Dortmund and won impressively 1-0. Yet, it almost seems that Wenger is so desperate to prove that he can win “his way” that he would rather lose trying than to alter his approach. Both Liverpool and Chelsea designed particular plans to tear Arsenal apart in the safe knowledge that they knew exactly how their opponents were going to play.
There is also an argument that perhaps Wenger’s strengths are not in the detailed tactical battles on the day. Last week against Manchester City, the vulnerability on Arsenal’s left side, with Lukas Podolski familiarly failing to track back and Kieran Gibbs pushing on, was all-too apparent. City took advantage to go a goal up and may feel that they should have punished the weakness more. While Arsenal impressively got back on level terms, Wenger failed to make a change until the 79th minute. Arsenal were crying out for some pace in attacking areas but Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s arrival came too late.
Still, Arsenal did show impressive resolve to at least stop the rot. And that should stand them in good stead against Everton. After his pivotal role in that turnaround, it has to be expected that Flamini will again start at Goodison Park. His presence will be needed if Ross Barkley recovers from injury to take his place in the Everton team. The exciting England midfielder is already excellent at finding the gaps between the lines that Arsenal regularly fail to cover. Whoever starts in Arsenal’s midfield will have a job on their hands, too, against the duo of Gareth Barry and James McCarthy, who have proven so key to Everton’s fine season. In the reverse fixture Everton’s pair were excellent and enabled their side to have the better of the encounter for large spells and indeed become one of the few teams to have more possession than Arsenal on their own turf.
Another pivotal battle could come down Arsenal’s left flank. If Podolski starts, expect Everton to aim to take advantage of that side of the pitch with the superb attacking right-back Seamus Coleman and likely the dangerous Mirallas ahead of him.
It promises to be a tense affair in what is arguably the biggest match at Goodison Park in close to a decade. Against an Everton side missing Phil Jagielka, Arsenal certainly have the capacity to get a precious result. However, on a run of eight straight home wins, the momentum is with Everton to just about secure victory.
Prediction: Everton 2-1 Arsenal