Jack Wilshere struggles as Arsenal’s attack falters against Everton

So it is then an unlikely source, César Azpilicueta, we refer to touch on what is at heart, the story of Arsenal’s season. In an interview with Sid Lowe for the Guardian the defender said that “a team is constructed with time and automatismos, habits, mechanisms” so as such, progress will occur gradually. That is surely the case with Arsenal.

Of course, there’s the other side of teambuilding which Chelsea in the past certainly have done and that is to buy “special players”; those players who lessen the adjustment period. Arsenal’s youngsters will soon get to that level but considering the signings made in the summer and the relative age of the squad, that is what it is: a new team. Against Everton on Wednesday evening, we saw those habits and patterns still struggling to form into one collective identity.

In the first-half of the 0-0 draw, Everton harassed Arsenal on the ball and marked them tightly to ensure that they never got into their usual passing rhythm. Arsenal stuttered and failed to get away. By the same token, Everton didn’t really threaten either – more on that later – and by the half-time whistle, both sides were separated by only one pass. In the second-half though, Everton relaxed and allowed Arsenal onto them in the hope of profiting from the gaps on the counter-attack, but held firm.

Arsenal looked disjointed, held together by one outstanding individual – Santi Cazorla – but in the end, creativity was stifled as they managed only 11 shots. And although Everton mustered only one more shot, it was at the back, strangely to say of them, that Arsenal looked more of a unit. Of course, this only confirms what Azpilicueta said at the start: that it’s easier to coach synchronicity at the back. Going forward, instinct and understanding cannot be taught; it’s developed over time. When Arsene Wenger committed his five Brits to the club – and later added Theo Walcott too – this is what he had to say: “Technical stability is important and the game we want to play demands a little bit of blind understanding, therefore it is important that we keep the same players together.”

Tactics and formations only go some way to addressing the nuances of balance and understanding. So as such, it might be better, after watching the draw with Everton, that Arsenal adjust their 4-2-3-1 to make it closer to a 4-3-3 because patently, Jack Wilshere is having a bit of trouble at the tip of the midfield. Of course, he’s still a bit rusty having just returned to the side from injury and he has too much attacking potential to not use him from the start. But Wilshere’s movement to get on the ball in the two sixty minutes he has played so far has left a lot to be desired.

Often against Everton, he dropped deep to try and escape his markers. And often, he didn’t receive the ball from the defence because there was no need. Mikel Arteta was there. And in any case, Laurent Koscielny is so good on the ball that what he needs is somebody forward to hit to. In contrast, Aaron Ramsey’s running was more intelligent, bursting forward into spaces behind the Everton midfield – where Jack Wilshere might have been – or moving wide to offer support. Other times, Santi Cazorla would drift into the attacking midfield position because Jack Wilshere wasn’t there. Indeed, Cazorla and Ramsey combined for the best chance in the first-half by creating an overload on the right before Ramsey whipped a cross into the penalty area which Olivier Giroud contrived to miss.

Wilshere’s inability to make an impact is shown by the places where he received the ball, often furrowing for possession deep to try and influence. Ramsey, perhaps due to the benefit of starting deep, often made intelligent runs to evade Everton’s midfield and had a fairly impressive game.

This conundrum, however, is nothing new to Wenger, Cesc Fabregas initially had trouble adjusting to picking up the ball with his back to goal. Wilshere similarly likes to collect the ball with his body to the goal so he can drive at the defence. When Wilshere got the opportunity to do that against Everton, it was because Arsenal had successfully penned The Toffees back in their own half.

Given that Wilshere has only just returned from injury, it was a surprise nevertheless, that he started given Tomas Rosicky recent form in that position. If Rosicky as well wasn’t quite fit, Santi Cazorla is the type of player who can make Arsenal tiki-taka from attacking midfield. But Arsene Wenger understandably didn’t want to upset the balance of his team and fielding Cazorla in a roaming role on the left allows him to field another creative midfielder. However, given the relative newness of the team, perhaps it’s not such a problem for Arsenal to depend on Cazorla for this moment because he’s just that good. (And indeed it’s arguable, without the right balance, Cazorla suffers in the wide role because he’s denied the freedom to roam laterally in the final third. In any case, he still does although it’s not without its risks).

At the end of the season, Arsenal’s position in the Premier League table will be the barometer which people will judge whether the team has made progress or not. But it doesn’t tell you the whole story.

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Mikel Arteta and Marouane Fellaini share the spoils in a fascinating midfield battle

arteta-fellaini

– Interesting battle between two key midfielders
– Ramsey’s role in 1-1 draw once again under-appreciated
– Wenger needs his side to find their fluency again if they are to push on

Marouane Fellaini’s stock has risen higher than even his prominent ‘fro. Last season, he was a good player for Everton playing in a box-to-box midfield role; this season, he’s become an important one mainly used as an advanced midfielder, linking up play, not with deft passes or dribbles past opponents – although he’s capable of that, as shown by his goal – but with his head: a half target-man, half midfield-pivot. It’s a strange role and one that Arsenal had to shackle if they were to stop an uncompromising Everton side. They nearly did; the match finished 1-1 and both sides had the potential to win it, if not for the special bit of quality to actually pull it off.

Everton’s play revolves around Fellaini. David Moyes creed is to create lots of 2 v 1 situations down the flanks and Fellaini is the reference point. If the ball is not played up to him, he can still act as the decoy which allows Everton to quickly ping the ball out wide, usually down the left hand-side with Leighton Baines and Steven Pienaar and work into the box from there. As such, stopping Fellaini would go a long way to stopping Everton (although a bigger case could be made for Baines being their most important player, as shown by the way his side’s game suffered when he picked up an injury with 15 minutes to go).

That job would primarily be Mikel Arteta’s (while if Everton went longer, he would pass Fellaini on to one of the centre-backs). It was to be Arteta’s greatest test since being converted into a deep-lying playmaker. However, there is a growing thought that moving Arteta deeper is detrimental to his wider skill-set, yet that notion couldn’t be more misguided. After all, it hasn’t worked too badly for Andrea Pirlo. There is an argument that this team needs his passing higher up the pitch yet last season, he wasn’t Arsenal’s most penetrative midfielder – that was the holding midfielder Alex Song. Rather, Arteta’s role was about giving the team continuity and stability in possession, exactly what he is doing this season. Even so, moving Arteta further forward is not really an option.

Arsène Wenger’s perplexing decision to build a squad this season, with crucial areas under-manned mean Arsenal don’t have another holding midfielder to call upon. “Sometimes you have no possibility because you might only have one player in one position,” said Wenger before the game on his lack of flexibility to rotate. Francis Coquelin is purely not disciplined enough to hold a midfield on his own while the rest of Arsenal’s midfield is more suited to the box-to-box positions: Jack Wilshere Aaron Ramsey and Abou Diaby. Unfortunately, even with that talent at their disposal, they still haven’t got enough from that position this season. Hopefully, Wilshere can push on from his promising performance last night.

Nevertheless, there’s a compelling case to make for Mikel Arteta being main reason for Arsenal’s defensive improvement this season. Because for all the expertise that Steve Bould brings, there needs to be someone who embodies that know-how on the pitch and Arteta has done that.His defensive statistics are some of the best in the Premier League: he’s the sixth-best defensive performer in the Premier League on average, winning nearly 60% of his duels, with 52 tackles and 40 interceptions.

Continuing that theme against Everton last night, Arteta won 4/5 tackles and made 6 interceptions, while also clearing the ball four times. His tussle with Fellaini was engrossing as it was watching two completely contrasting styles. They niggled, fouled each other, and tugged one another’s shirts in the effort to win some sort of space in the midfield battle. (Both players are among the most fouled in the league too not coincidently). Arteta was not scared to put his body in front of the considerable frame of Fellaini and their tussle encapsulated the frantic nature of the fixture. Arteta showed that he had the physicality to play in the position – his tactical nous is already one the best – but due to the attentions of the Belgian midfielder, couldn’t really influence the game enough with his passing.

Marouane Fellaini got his goal when Steven Pienaar won the ball off Arteta following a lax pass from Bacary Sagna (in that sequence leading up to the equaliser, Pienaar actually recovered possession of the ball twice, the first time robbing Aaron Ramsey). Arteta could only watch, dumped to the floor as Sagna’s challenge inadvertently saw the ball squeeze its way to Fellaini and he shot accurately into the bottom corner with his left-foot.

Before that, Arsenal started wondrously, scoring inside the first minute but due to Everton’s pressing, but mainly some poor passing and understanding on their part, Arsenal never really dominated for a discernable period. Indeed, Everton’s equaliser came from a spell in which Arsenal kept the ball for good two-minutes before a certain level of cautiousness to play the killer ball and cockiness from Ramsey, saw them lose it in a dangerous area. That would be the most galling thing for Arsène Wenger to come out of this impotent period; that Arsenal haven’t moved the ball around effectively in the last month-and-a-half.After the draw, he said that the team “missed a little bit of accuracy in our final ball” and while Everton are always difficult opponents, Wenger’s way is set up for the midfield to win the game and they are not doing that at the moment.

Lukas Podolski’s absence meant Arsenal started with Ramsey on the left, four central midfielders in the line-up. The idea was to start as they did last season, where they kept the ball brilliantly for half an hour before Everton eventually threatened. Ramsey was key then and he was again, in a slightly different way this time. He created Arsenal’s goal, a Cesc-y reverse pass to Theo Walcott and made two other chances in the game (both with through-passes, possibly the hardest art in the sport). Yet, in between he showed some parts of his game which make him the maligned figure that he regretfully is.

He was dispossessed before Everton’s goal and overall, was pick-pocketed off the ball six times – the most of any player on the pitch.However, there were other parts of his game that went unnoticed such as the defensive work he did on Baines and Pienaar to limit as much as possible, their threat down that flank. Indeed, and that may partly be down to Walcott’s injury, Wenger switched Ramsey to Arsenal’s left in the second-half, to act as a balancing winger and allow Walcott to play on the counter-attack, almost as the second-striker. Arsenal’s problem, though, was the failure to successfully combine midfield with attack in transitions, especially with Santi Cazorla having a tired game. Ramsey did his part though, and one would hope his stint wide will make him a better user of the ball once he moves back centrally. Wenger once said that by deploying a central player wide, it allows him to “get used to using the ball in a small space, as the touchline effectively divides the space that’s available to him by two; when you move the same player back to the middle, he breathes more easily and can exploit space better.” That’s the aim with Ramsey.

All in all, though, a point was a fair result. Arsenal have a period of kind fixtures coming up which they must perform better. Against Everton, they showed the spirit required against normally troublesome opponents. Now they must hope that they find their technical accuracy consistently again. It’s Arsenal’s one trick but success is making it their one very good trick.

Arsenal 1-0 Everton: Robin van Persie’s bolt from the blue gives Arsenal the win

Sometimes, the textbook way isn’t always the right way. That’s what David Moyes and Everton found out and in the end, they were outdone by a stunning volley from Robin van Persie. The goal didn’t look like coming in the second-half – while Robin van Persie had one of his most ineffective games yet this season – and that was due to the turnaround in tactics by Moyes.

Everton actually rode their luck in the first-half as Arsenal contrived to spoil good openings. First Theo Walcott delayed too long a pass to Gervinho before it was cut out while Aaron Ramsey chipped over when he could have finished first time. The positive to take from it though, from The Gunners perspective, was that they were able to pick gaps through a normally bullish Everton defence but lacked polish in the execution. That made it a frenetic first-half in comparison to the second, which Arsenal lumbered through before van Persie’s goal. That the goal came as it did was surprising although the build up consisted of what Arsenal did well in the first-half; quick interchange in central midfield before a blink-of-an-eye pass to find the run of a striker. Robin van Persie’s movement was brilliant; his strike even better but the pass that led to the goal will continue to go underrated. Though, the fact that it came from Alex Song shouldn’t be a surprise considering he attempted 7 through-passes in the game and the figure is a great testament to how far he has come. It wasn’t just the urgency he brings in possession, he has a balletic-like grace which covers the field and breaks up many opposition attacks. Proof that his unassuming style goes unnoticed, The Sun only gave Song a 7 for what we see as a man-of-the-match performance while the more visceral impact of Walcott and van Persie saw them receive 8 and 10(!) respectively.

First-half  to second-half: Everton’s approach

Good technique, though while widely accepted as an essential weapon, is rarely seen as a game-changing factor in the grand scheme of a result. Having good technique usually means simply being able to control the ball easily, weigh passes appropriately or maintain one’s balance when shooting. Occasionally, however, technique is the difference between winning and losing. Robin van Persie’s expert strike came as a sucker-punch to Everton as it undid all their hard-work to correct their faults in the first and after that, they never had the energy to get back in it.

Truthfully, though, they should have been out of it in the first 45 minutes as they simply allowed Arsenal too much room. It wasn’t meant to happen that way but the way modern footballers have been programmed tactically, it happened habitually. David Moyes wanted Everton to play compactly and thus squeezing the space for The Gunners in their half. But to remain compact, it means the team moving together as a unit and as the textbook says, that means the defence has to push up. We all know by now, however, that to play against Arsenal, you cannot give them space behind and Everton did that constantly in the first-half. Phil Jagielka and Johnny Heitinga were unable to get close when the ball was played quickly around the corner but fortunately for them, they weren’t punished. In the second-half, however, they dropped deeper and that extra 5m they had spare, they were able to survey the threat better and anticipate the passes. That figure is shown by the dramatic rise in interceptions, which was only at a lowly 7 in the first, going up to 17 in the second. Denying Arsenal of that out-ball down the channels, Everton were able to frustrate Arsenal and prevent them from finding any fluency.

David Moyes said: “The high line wasn’t necessarily the plan but we wanted to limit Arsenal and that means midfielders have to go and get close to Arsenal’s midfielders. If you do that then the back four have to move up too. We wanted to disrupt Arsenal’s passing and win the ball early. If we came and parked the bus you would be saying why did we not have a go, well we did, and if you do that you are always going to give Arsenal some opportunities.

“We tried to get at them,” he added. “I thought we got into some great positions to make opportunities, great positions to deliver crosses and we either never delivered them or never completed the move.”

<Figure 1> Everton failed to get compact in the first-half and simply allowed Arsenal too much room to play through the middle and into the channels. As a result, their interception count was at a low 7. In the second-half, they dropped deeper and were able cut off Arsenal play and frustrate them. To highlight the effectiveness of the change, Phil Jagielka made all five of his interceptions in the second-half. Linked to Arsenal in the summer, does his preference for the deeper game indicate why Arsenal weren’t fully convinced by him?

First-half  to second-half: Arsenal’s approach

While it may fall down partly to Everton’s tactics that Arsenal looked more potent in the first, their expert ball rotation also allowed them to dominate as they did. Aaron Ramsey was given a “free role” to get to the end of Arsenal’s attacks and roam around the front-line for the ball. It was a typically energetic performance from the Welshman and it’s interesting that Arséne Wenger has pushed him up higher in the last few games. It’s a tactical role as he often has to mark the first midfielder to stop the pass out of the defence but, in the coming games, the role might have just become more important.

<Figure 2> The effectiveness of Arsenal in the first-half in comparison to the second can be displayed by the passing received charts of Ramsey. In the opening period, he as able to roam around the pitch in search for possession, rotating eith his teammates before getting on the end of moves. In the second-half, his movement remained almost exclusively to the middle showing how Everton disrupted Arsenal’s fluency.

The reason why Wenger is more willing to push him up the pitch might be due to the lack of penetration provided by the full-backs. Of course, being central defenders by trade as they are, getting forward and providing the width can only be expected to be a secondary duty so extra drive has to come from elsewhere. Therefore, Wenger feels he can afford to take the risk and commit an extra body forward because he’ll have two cautious full-backs back anyway. As a result in this encounter, Everton were able to get plenty of room down the flanks, getting into a number of one-on-one situations but failing to deliver dangerously. (Everton made more crosses than Arsenal but were poor on one-on-ones, only getting past 3 out of 8 times in wide areas).

<Figure 3> Again, the compactness of Everton in the second period can be shown by where Theo Walcott recieved his passes. In the first, and Everton playing a high-line, he was played in more often behind the defence. However, in the next period, he was forced to drop deeper in search of possession.