On a dark pre-Christmas night in Merseyside, Arsenal’s trip to Everton had the makings of a typical Gunner slip-up. With the top of the Premier League just a victory away (again), Arsene Wenger’s side were going to be judged on this game. It was going to be a yardstick for their progression as a football team and a chance to see if they have realistic hopes of lifting the Premier League trophy come May. Eventual defeat hurts the Gunners, but we learned plenty more from this game than just the result.
An uninspiring start from Everton allowed Arsenal to play. Not at their best, the Gunners looked becalmed despite taking the lead. Granit Xhaka sprayed the play as he can, but both he and Francis Coquelin looked vulnerable when pressed later in the first half. Xhaka is the heartbeat of this Arsenal side at their best, dictating tempo, spreading the play and often initiating attacks. His awareness before he receives the ball allows him to change the whole pattern of the play with only a couple of touches.
Until they went behind, Everton had sat deep in their own half, but did not threaten Xhaka in possession. With Coquelin always available if other lanes were closed, the former Borussia Monchengladbach midfielder controlled the game in the opening phases. But once Everton upped their performance, the centre of the pitch was compressed. Without time for Mesut Ozil on the half-turn, or to pick out a ball towards Theo Walcott or Alexis Sanchez, Xhaka’s defensive weaknesses were shown up. Coquelin, too, made some poor passes and clumsy challenges.
When Everton enjoyed their most successful period of the game, they pushed their full-backs up the pitch and pressed intensely in midfield. Ozil was unable to influence the game and, with Leighton Baines and Seamus Coleman forcing Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain deep, Arsenal were penned into their own half. Given space by Everton at the start of the game, Arsenal’s innate technical ability took charge. But when passing options became more limited, the Gunners became scrappy, their defence stretched by the width of Baines and Coleman.
There were positives aplenty from Arsenal’s trip to Goodison, but several signs of chinks in their armour. Wenger’s 70th minute substitutions showed a willingness to change plan, as he brought Olivier Giroud and Alex Iwobi on. From the start against Manchester City, however, Wenger will likely field the same XI that started on Merseyside.
Pep Guardiola may well persevere with his back three, but a back four with shielding midfielders would be the best approach against Arsenal. Unleash Kolarov from the full-back role to challenge Walcott defensively and make sure there is no room for Ozil to play defence splitting passes from advanced positions. The suspension of Fernandinho will hurt Manchester City more than ever for this game, his reliable passing and reading of the game would be ideal to shackle Ozil.
Kolarov as a left-sided centre back would be a liability against the electric pace of Walcott and Hector Bellerin. Rather, Guardiola must use his strengths to limit the effectiveness of Arsenal’s right side offensively. Just as City targeted the wings against Chelsea, they must look to do the same against Arsenal, albeit in a different shape. Guardiola’s central midfielders need to hound Xhaka and Coquelin to stop the flow of Arsenal’s play.
Holding Walcott and Chamberlain to defensive duties will limit the pressure-releasing passes Arsenal can play, and force Sanchez to live off a diet of direct balls with limited support. Then, however, the concern is how John Stones and Nicolas Otamendi can stop Sanchez. Guardiola will inevitably set his defence to push high up the pitch once again – that is okay – but his midfielders must pressurise Arsenal’s distributors if they are to avoid humiliation.
Having been forced to field a weakened defence, cracks will appear if Arsenal’s attacking football is restricted. Limiting Arsenal’s opportunities to create will be City’s best route to success. Enough time spent in the Arsenal third and a clear opening will come for City, particularly with Gabriel’s rash decision making alongside Laurent Koscielny. Nacho Monreal had a torrid time against Everton, Leroy Sane or Jesus Navas will take full advantage of his immobility, which will force Coquelin to provide support.
City have the players – even without Fernandinho and Sergio Aguero – to trouble Arsenal. Ilkay Gundogan’s role, through pressing and switching of play, will be key in central midfield particularly.
Koeman needed a performance like this from Everton and Guardiola needs similar signs of improvement from his side. If Manchester City set up like they did against Leicester, they will be put to the sword by Walcott and Sanchez, but Guardiola has the personnel to take advantage of the Gunners after a drab performance against Everton.