Alan O’Brien Follow @alanob2112
With six Premier League games remaining, Arsenal have already matched last season’s 63-point tally. Notwithstanding some early teething problems, few would dispute that Unai Emery has quickly swept up the mess left by his predecessor, Arsene Wenger. The Gunners’ longstanding problem with travel sickness, however, is proving more difficult to remedy. Arsenal possess only the 10th-best away record in this league. And Emery has only his own tactical uncertainty to blame.
Arsenal’s recent record of four road defeats from six is shameful, but there exists one diamond in the results rough. Having followed up six winless trips with an ultra-fortunate win at lowly Huddersfield, Emery enacted a timely tactical tweak ahead of last month’s North London Derby at Wembley. Out went the back three that left Arsenal looking so vulnerable in the channels, and in came a more conventional 4-2-3-1 in its stead. Aaron Ramsey duly starred at the centre of Arsenal’s attacking midfield trio, but a comprehensively-outplayed Tottenham somehow escaped with an unearned draw.
Quite why Emery then reverted to a three-man defence for the subsequent home game against Manchester United is anyone’s guess. And although they ultimately ran out 2-0 winners, the Gunners leaked chance after chance against Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s desperately unlucky side. That day’s 3-4-1-2 was therefore summarily tweaked, giving way to the 3-4-2-1 that secured a facile victory over Newcastle United. And six days later, that same system reared its head once more against Marco Silva’s resurgent Everton – with disastrous results.
The Toffees’ recent run (all two wins of it) had been somewhat overblown: they were almost completely overwhelmed in the opening half-hour against Chelsea; and West Ham United have been languishing on the beach for weeks. But the accomplished and effervescent manner in which Everton went about prising apart Arsenal’s rickety defence here can not be taken away from Silva.
Only four Premier League sides press higher up the pitch than Everton, who don’t always implement the tactic effectively. Compactness that should go hand in hand with a cohesive team-press often eludes Silva. The high line necessary to implement it, therefore, often gets breached by the opposition; as does space in behind central midfielders André Gomes and ball-winner-par-excellence Idrissa Gueye.
Viewers caught a glimpse of that very failing as early as the second minute, when Matteo Guendouzi beat Gomes to a ball recovery and released Henrikh Mkhitaryan in the inside-left pocket. Alexandre Lacazatte duly broke Everton’s offside-trap, running off a flat-footed Phil Jagielka to claim the Armenian’s through-ball. But Lacazette pulled his resultant effort well wide, and that was as good as it got for his side in the first half; Arsenal attempted no further shots on Jordan Pickford’s goal before half-time. Mkhitaryan’s influence on proceedings never materialised; and the less said about Mesut Ozil the better.
Causal to the Gunners’ attacking impotence was Everton’s press, which became a near-perfect collective diminution of Arsenal’s passing options after that early hiccup. Arsenal’s back-three regularly engaged in benign square passing, as the likes of Dominic Calvert-Lewin set about penning them into their own defensive third. Even after Jagielka’s early winner, gleaned from one of several poorly-defended Lucas Digne long-throws, Everton continued to squeeze Arsenal high up the pitch, preventing their passage through midfield.
Teenager Guendouzi, booked for a rash early challenge, showed all his inexperience in the face of such concerted pressure. The Frenchman was lucky to survive Emery’s now customary half-time cull, as he found it exceedingly difficult to find space to receive the ball into feet from his defence. Only the performance of partner Mohamed Elneny saved Guendouzi’s bacon. And it was a similar story for 21-year-old Ainsley Maitland-Niles, whose utterly inept turn at right-wing-back was matched by Sead Kolasinac’s pathetic efforts on the opposite flank.
Kolasinac was the focal point of much of Arsenal’s first-half attacking efforts. But Everton’s impressive insistence upon boxing the Gunners in near the touchline proved too hot for the Bosnian to handle. Along with Elneny, he too ultimately paid the half-time price, as Emery once again found himself forced to rip up his initial tactic at the break.
Picking the wrong starting system and forcing himself into remedial action is becoming a habit that Emery is finding tough to break. And this time there was no unlikely second-half turnaround, a hallmark of the Spaniard’s first season at Arsenal, to spare his blushes. The arriving pair of Ramsey and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang immediately made a difference, the latter teeing up the former with a rare right-wing cross.
Ramsey’s ability to arrive late in the opposition box from a deeper position is legendary. But it’s difficult not to think that a higher starting position, akin to that which he filled against Spurs, may have worked to Arsenal’s greater benefit here. Instead, the Welshman sat alongside Guendouzi in a 4-2-3-1, and watched his early impact ebb away as time ticked on.
The same could not be said of Calvert-Lewin, however. Although his current-season haul of six goals is hardly eye-catching, the 22-year-old continues to show all the signs of developing into a complete striker. Calvert-Lewin possesses pace, industry, aerial prowess, and hold-up strength in spades, and all four were on display here. One of many successful aerial duels, won at Skhodhran Mustafi’s expense on the hour-mark, indirectly teed up the first of Everton’s three big second-half-chances; Bernard, himself tireless on the day, shot straight at Bernd Leno after Maitland-Niles’ woeful attempt at a defensive header put the tiny Brazilian through.
From there, Everton ran riot on the break in behind Maitland-Niles and his equally advanced fellow full-back, Nacho Monreal. Richarlison, a target of Gomes’ beautiful diagonals all afternoon, proved a particular beneficiary of the game’s newly open status. But, like his fellow countryman, the young forward’s end product often proved characteristically lacking. Richarlison did provide the cutback from which Gylfi Sigurdsson should have finished one particularly breathtaking Everton counter-attack. But the Brazilian’s big miss, two minutes later, after Arsenal generously awarded Sigurdsson space on the edge of the box to return the favour, could well have been very costly.
Everton were determined to continually overcommit in attack, after all, giving rise to the strong suspicion that Silva may not have curbed his sides’ worst tendencies just yet. Although the fact that Everton adequately defended every set-piece that came their way will warm his Portuguese heart; no Premier League manager has fared worse on that metric since Silva first rocked up at Hull City in 2017.
Clean sheets, therefore, have been difficult for Silva to come by. But they’ve proved even tougher for Emery and his side to earn on the road. Arsenal remain the only Premier League side never to keep the opposition out away from their home patch this season. And until Emery lets go of his back-three obsession, and starts playing to his squad’s not inconsiderable strengths, that state of affairs is unlikely to change any time soon. Arsenal, still behind stuttering Spurs, have now been dragged back into the top-four-race quagmire. Next week’s tricky trip to Watford, who have won their last three home games, looms large on the horizon.
Follow the author, Alan O’Brien, on Twitter: Follow @alanob2112