Arsene Wenger deservedly received plaudits here and elsewhere in midweek for taking a pragmatic approach to his pre-match preparations for Bayern Munich.
Tuesday night’s counter-attack inspired victory over the German champions continues a trend towards greater tactical adaptability over the last year from the French manager. The manner of the 2-0 victory evoked echoes of January’s away victory in the Etihad, in which Arsenal frustrated Manchester City’s attacking midfield cohort with a defensive 4-5-1 formation, before smashing them on the break.
Yet, despite running into what looked like an unassailable two-goal lead as the half-time break approached in this evening’s Premier League clash at home to Everton, Wenger’s charges did their best to throw the three points away at the death with some outrageous positional indiscipline.
That two-goal lead was fueled by some positional indiscipline of Everton’s own – coupled with their continuing ineptitude at facing set-pieces.
Both fallibilities also contributed to last weekend’s 3-0 home reverse to Manchester United. On that occasion, Everton’s 4-1-4-1 struggled with the lateral movement of United’s number ten, Ander Herrera, with Gareth Barry often left stranded in front of his defence by his midfield teammates. Herrera prevailed upon that freedom to score the second goal and force the corner that led to the first.
Here, Mesut Ozil was the number ten varying his position laterally to take advantage of the Toffees’ lax shape. It was the German’s cross from a right-of-centre midfield position that led to Giroud opening the scoring with his head. Ozil’s cross was not closed down by the nearest player, Aaron Lennon – who was also concerned with the overlapping run of right-back Hector Bellerin. Everton’s winger had his hands full to such a degree due to Brendan Galloway being forced to leave his left-back position to close down Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain – Galloway was compensating for Ross Barkley’s failure to get back into position in a timely fashion.
Arsenal had targeted the left-side of the Everton defence throughout the first-half, winning four corners for their troubles down that flank. None of the four were adequately defended from an Everton perspective. It was no surprise, therefore, when Cazorla’s beautifully curled free-kick from wide on the left was turned in by the head of Laurent Koscielny. Goalkeeper Tim Howard made an unconvincing attempt to come and claim – no current Premier League goalkeeper has made more errors leading to goals since the beginning of the 2014/15 season.
Yet, despite Arsenal’s first-half dominance, their lead was halved late on – when Ross Barkley’s speculative strike flew past Cech, courtesy of a heavy deflection off Gabriel.
Arsenal’s possession dominance continued in the second half, as they showed no sign of erring toward the side of caution. Both Giroud and Alexis Sanchez had two presentable chances apiece to settle the game – with the Frenchman hitting the bar from one after Galloway was again forced to compensate for Ross Barkley’s positional failings by leaving his defensive line to press Ozil.
Everton introduced Kevin Mirallas for the last twenty minutes, flipping the midfield triangle and moving to a 4-4-1-1 in the process. Still Arsenal committed bodies forward – even after Lukaku hit the bar with a free header in the 80th minute.
Immediately after that huge let-off, Wenger appeared to kick into game-management mode, introducing defensive-midfielder Mathieu Flamini to hold fort alongside Francis Coquelin for the remainder of the game.
Except, holding the fort was the last thing the Frenchman had in mind. That brace he scored in his last start for Arsenal – against Tottenham in the Capital One Cup – must have gone to his head. Flamini managed two shots on target in his first five minutes on the field. The first was a strike from the edge of the Everton area, the second a free header from eight yards – from which Everton broke up the field and saw Deulofeu foiled from 12 yards by the out-rushing Petr Cech. Again – and I can’t stress this enough – this happened in the 86th minute of a game which Arsenal were leading by one goal. Incredible.
Worse was to follow. When Mesut Ozil one-twoed with Giroud and struck the base of the post in the final minute of normal time, the hosts had FIVE PLAYERS committed to the attack. Arsenal again found themselves similarly over-committed in the 93rd minute and were almost meted out the punishment they deserved on the break. Only a fantastic saving tackle from Gabriel on Lukaku saved home blushes.
I, and many others, were fulsome in my praise for Arsene Wenger’s conversion to the ways of tactical pragmatism on Tuesday evening. However, the last twenty minutes of this one demonstrates that this conversion is still very much a work in progress. Hearts in mouths stuff for the Gunners’ faithful – whose side rode their luck here to secure a fourth-consecutive Premier League victory and a seat at the top of the table. If it is to be a permanent one, they’re going to have to play a lot smarter than this in the future.