|01 Feb||7:45 PM||P||Everton (H)||2||1||Win|
Goals from Andrey Arshavin and Laurent Koscielny ensured Arsenal stayed on course with league leaders Manchester United, but they had to dig deep to earn the three points. Louis Saha had initially gave Everton the lead with a contentious goal - a goal which was certainly offside by the laws of the game. The linesman and the referee opted not to renege on their decision despite seeing the goal again on the big screen. But as the World Cup showed and as directed by the powers of the game, video footage should not influence the officials. The goal was - it would be wrong to say reward for Everton's start but - reflective of the away side's dominance. However, Arsenal came out of the blocks firing in the second half and with the substitutions of Arshavin and in particular, Abou Diaby, The Gunners turned possession into dynamism. Here are some tactical observations from the encounter.
Jack Wilshere has been tipped this week to play a more defensive role for England but as his body is still developing, he was given the unenviable task of going up against Marouane Fellaini. It was initially too much for him as Everton snapped and snarled at every ball that Wilshere received, so much so that his frustration earned him a fourth minute yellow card. Everton pressed high up the pitch and gave Arsenal no time to settle. Their wall of blue in a 4-5-1 meant Arsenal could not pass through and when they did get through, Fellaini put himself in front. The Belgian constantly broke up attacks and initiated his side's own, playing with a unshakeable calmness which Arsenal were unable to nudge. Wilshere and Song were given a hard time because Arsenal's pressing - but more to the point - Everton's structure made it difficult for them to dominate. Their five across the middle gave them a man advantage while Wenger's side, pressing with a 4-2-4, meant more work for the central midfielders.
"Our game lacked a bit of cohesion in the passing," commented Arsène Wenger of the first half performance. "And we lost some balls down to good closing-down from Everton and as well to some technical mistakes."
In the second half, Diaby came in and as Arsenal attacked and Everton naturally dropped deeper, the Frenchman was able to control the game. He gave Arsenal the presence on the second ball which even Alex Song could not provide. Diaby made 23 passes before Arsenal scored on 70 minutes and by the end of the game, although he made 6 more and misplaced none, it highlights his importance in settling Arsenal. By holding the position in front of the back four, he gave a stability Denilson is known for and a calmness on the ball, Cesc Fabregas is renowned for.
The upsurge of Arsenal's form has much been down to a settled line-up adding structure to the side and indeed, Arsène Wenger made only one change to his team, bringing in Tomas Rosicky for the injured Samir Nasri. But we shouldn't understate the importance of Robin van Persie's return to the starting line-up and his ability to play a dual striker role has helped Arsenal turn possession into chances. At Everton, he looked fitter than ever and as determined as always, although the presence of his Dutch team-mate, Jonny Heitinga in front of him perhaps added a bit of fire to his play.
van Persie's movement caused Everton's defenders all sorts of trouble in the game as he was constantly drifting into channels ans dragging the defenders about. But he also showed his ability to mix things up by looking to go in behind and that kept Distin and Heitinga on their toes. Arsenal looked really dangerous in the first half when they did get the ball into the final third with their speed and crisp passing but Everton made it hard for them to get there. They disrupted Arsenal's fluency in midfield and that made it harder for Fabregas to get close to van Persie. Nevertheless, the Dutch striker kept going and kept on opening gaps for his midfielders to run onto. "We used to say the midfielders are the guys who bring the strikers alive but what is happening now is the strikers are the guys who can bring your midfielders alive," said Wenger last season . "They come to score from deeper positions and you can really do that with one-man up front. [For example] Robin van Persie, when he played we always scored three or four goals. He didn't score too many [himself] but he made a lot. Not only with passing, but with movement and the quality of that movement. Strikers open walls for the deeper players. That is a big part in the modern game."
At the other end, Louis Saha, brought his midfielders in the game in a different way. He was relatively quite in the second half as Arsenal continued attacking and Everton became more predictable, pumping balls forward with little adventure. But in the first half, he was superb as the target-man. He roamed around across the Arsenal backline as all good strikers do but because he was direct, Johan Djourou and Laurent Koscielny were worried about the threat behind. As a result, they dropped back, affording space in front of them for Rodwell, Arteta and Fellaini to break forward. For Arsenal, by defending deeper, that created a larger gap between midfield and defence and that made pressing more inefficient.
In the end, sometimes it is better for players to take things into their own hands. Andrey Arshavin's pure individualism saw him take positions wherever it pleased him and he ended up getting on the end of Fabregas' pass to score the first. Perhaps, if van Persie hadn't dropped deep Arshavin wouldn't have found the space but it shows, even if there's good movement from the striker - as displayed by van Persie in the World Cup - there needs to be willingness to make runs, and Arshavin did that.
Arsenal have conceded 50% of the goals from set-pieces - the highest proportion in the Premier League before Saha's goal. The centre-backs looked shaky at times from the quick cross from the counter but on the whole defended better in the air. And when they got the chance to attack themselves, they totally dominated Everton from corner-kicks. Their five corners all found an Arsenal head and the danger were there early on when Djourou skimmed a header across goal and past Koscielny. However the French centre-back got his reward for a fine defensive display also, by stealing in unmarked at the back post with a powerful run and header. Arsenal have conceded only one goal now in five games and it look deadly every time they get forward. And that includes the defenders.
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