Arsenal – Everton Match Preview
The Show Must Go On
Every time Arsenal disappoints a portion of our Gooners souls are crushed. In drawing AS Monaco in the round of 16 many Gooners believed we finally had a chance to get a bit deeper into the Champions League eliminations. If we could beat them in a bit of style, draw a team in the quarters who maybe didn’t quite have their feet totally under themselves, well, who knows, anything is possible in football.
Wednesday night may have proved that adage, but not as expected. Hopeful Gooners didn’t see it coming, but we witnessed a nervous performance and a capitulation which took us aback. Moderate early dominance led to a realization that our opponent was well organized and difficult to break down. A lucky (and deflected) strike from distance gave them the away goal and the upper hand in the tie. There was no initial panic but we made no headway as we played out the first 45.
After halftime there seemed increased desire but still no equalizer. We pushed and we pushed but maybe we pushed too much. A simple loss of possession high up the pitch led to missed tackles and chasing on the break. 2-nil. More chances, many rushed, all squandered, until, finally, substitute Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain got one back. Those who had stayed in the stadium had a little something to get excited about. Except they didn’t. Too eager from the kickoff, the Ox made another dash at goal but left the ball behind. Again the break was on and Monaco finished it, and most likely our Champions League hopes, in ruthless fashion.
Now, with just three days of rest to find perspective and regroup, Arsenal face always tough Everton in front of our none-too-happy home support. It will not be an easy match. In fact, we haven’t beaten this club (in the league) in our last 5 attempts, but a reaction is necessary. Arsenal need a result and a performance, both to maintain their position in the league and to restore a bit of belief amongst the players and the fans.
It could be argued we’re playing Everton at a good time. They actually come into the match on even less rest due to their Europa League exploits. At least they will be riding a wave of confidence, having beaten BSC Young Boys (Switzerland) 3-1 and completing a 7-2 aggregate win over two legs. For winning that they will face two more Thursday matches against Dinamo Kiev, one of which will require travel to war-torn Ukraine. All of that will be only for a chance to get to the quarter-finals of the Europa League. Still, given that they’re in the bottom half of the league table, winning that tournament is their best chance of getting into next year’s Champions League.
It’s a far cry from the scare the Toffees gave us a season ago, when losing to them in a desultory 3-0 at Goodison Park in April shunted them into (and us out of) the top four Champions League places. We were able to win our remaining six matches (including the FA Cup final) while they stumbled, but it still remains an indication of the threat posed by the Blues. Roberto Martinez’ team may need to prioritize their progress in Europe but they will surely do so fighting for every scrap of confidence they can find. Nothing would help more than a composed performance and stealing points against wounded Arsenal.
As such, I expect a composed and committed performance from Everton. Can we match it? In my opinion, composure is what we lacked in the mid-week loss. Some might have seen a lack of spirit or passion in that performance, but I saw players, if anything, trying too hard, rushing their chances and losing their discipline, especially when it came to positioning as the match wore on. Monaco was playing us to absorb our attack and spring on the counter and we obliged by stepping into the trap. A similar dynamic will likely play out in the Everton match. As much as we need to make a statement in front of our home fans, it must be done in methodical fashion. Patience, never the long-suit amongst Gooners, could be a watch-word.
Everton’s most recent league match, at home, against attack-minded Leicester City, showed that they can be broken down. In that one, the visitors, despite going behind against the run of play, scored two goals in the 2nd half and were unlucky to leave Goodison with only a point, a late own-goal rescuing the draw for the home team. They may switch things up against us, but their rearguard, featuring American keeper Tim Howard and all British back four (Phil Jagielka, John Stones or Sylvain Distin , Leyton Baines and Seamus Coleman) can be breached. Martinez typically allows the fullbacks freedom to get forward but then packs the center of the pitch with midfielders known as much for their defending as their attack. Gareth Barry is the most notorious for his cynicism but James McCarthy and Muhamed Besic, while possessing a bit more trickery and pace, are players who play with commitment and defensive focus. Ross Barkley, the talented but hot-tempered English youngster can be dangerous, both in getting forward on the dribble and spotting the through-ball. Up front, the focus is on the big man Romelu Lukaku, but keying on him comes with the peril of ignoring more consistent finishers like Stephen Naismith and Kevin Mirallas. Despite their struggles this season and their likely desire to focus on Europe, we should not believe that Everton will be pushovers.
How will Arsene Wenger try and get our boys up for this challenge and who will he pick to do the job? While some Gooners will call for wholesale changes after the Monaco match, I seriously doubt Wenger will answer those calls. Many are pointing fingers at David Ospina and want Wojcheik Szczesny back in goal. Others are still having nightmares from the failures of our two tallest (and slowest?) players, Olivier Giroud and Per Mertesacker, and wish to leave them out. Still others lament over the work ethic (or lack thereof) of Mesut Ozil, or the fact that Santi Cazorla was unable to put a definitive stamp on the CL match. Sorry, I don’t see any of them being dropped.
Instead, I believe our indiscipline was mainly at the full-back positions so I wouldn’t be surprised to see Nacho Monreal in for Kieran Gibbs. Hector Bellerin may also make way for Calum Chambers, although he may be seen as the better alternative for containing Baines. With Aaron Ramsey and Mathieu Flamini still unavailable and Jack Wilshere undergoing a minor surgery, Francis Coquelin will have to reprise his role in defensive midfield. Oxlade-Chamberlain, who came on in his stead on Wednesday, is unlikely to get his spot. While he got us on the board in midweek, his over-eagerness also was at the heart of Monaco’s late killer. On the other hand, Theo Walcott, who came on for the ineffectual Giroud, I think, may finally get a start. If he does, my bet is that it’s at the expense of Welbeck rather than big Ollie, who helps so much in giving our offense its shape and defending at set pieces.
Here then is my best guess at our first 11.
(Subs = Szczesny, Gibbs, Gabriel, Chambers, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Rosicky, Welbeck)
As matches following tough CL games go, Everton is not a great opponent to face. Additionally, while a home tie would seem to favour us, the hostility of the disappointed support will always be lurking and ready to rear its ugly head should we concede early or even look less than fully in control. We need to start the match well and make early chances count. Full focus will be expected and required.
Can we get the needed reaction and all three points?
Will Wenger go with a largely unchanged group or try out some of his more rested players?
Is this a time to rotate or does he wait for Wednesday at QPR?
Who would you play and why?
This is a big one. We have no choice but to get right back on top of the horse which bucked us off. We simply must. Go on then…