This week's matchup pits Everton against top-four club Arsenal. Before the Toffees travel to London, we sat down with Paul DeBruler of SB Nation's Gunners blog The Short Fuse to get a better understanding of the opponent. I also answered some of their questions as well.
RBM: Arsenal have put together a decent campaign so far; currently sitting third in a tight race for a Champions League spot. What do you attribute to their success so far?
TSF: It's funny hearing other people's perspectives on your team. A large, vocal swath of the Arsenal fan base would disagree with your assessment of a "decent campaign" - after a very slow start and an injury list that would make a room full of doctors very, very rich, Arsenal finally started to right the ship just after New Year's Day. That day's 2-0 loss to Southampton, while not a "turning point" in the media cliche sense of the term, definitely lit a fire under Arsenal, at least in the league. That fire, coinciding with the return to health of some of Arsenal's best players, has served them well since the Southampton loss, and put them in a good place right now, a place where we all thought Arsenal would have been all along (I actually picked Arsenal to finish second this season, which is maaaaaaaaaybe doable but probably not).
So, the short answer is, health. That health didn't arrive until January, and it's enabled Arsenal to run out a consistent defense, and that's been a huge part of their good-for-the-most-part 2015 play.
RBM: Arsenal were dealt a blow in the Champions League this week losing 1-3 to Monaco. Do you see them bouncing back and advancing in the second leg?
TSF: "Dealt a blow" is the kindest description of that game I've heard yet, so thank you for that. That game was a... can I swear here? It was a shitshow. This was probably the most winnable Round of 16 game Arsenal have played in their last five appearances in that round, and we all saw what happened. Without derailing into a long and sad conversation about Wenger and his seemingly plateau-ed tactical abilities at the CL level these days, and what that means big picture-wise, I will just say no, I don't think Arsenal can score four goals in Monaco while holding them scoreless.
RBM: Is there any concern that the FA Cup and Champions League ties have had an adverse effect on the squad's Premier League campaign? Could you see them having more points if they were not concerned with other competitions?
TSF: Honestly, not really. Arsenal are a really big club with resources that, while not petro-club bottomless, are definitely deep enough to staff a club with players who can compete in three or four competitions. There are legitimate arguments to be made about the quality of some of Arsenal's depth pieces, but I don't think being in the CL/FA Cup and League Cup (as long as that lasted, anyway) harms Arsenal's Premier League campaign all that much. After all, Arsenal have been in the CL for 17 straight years; they know what it takes to build a squad that can cope.
RBM: One thing that a club like Everton relies upon to remain fresh and competitive is youth within their system. Are there any exciting youngsters within the Gunner's ranks?
TSF: There are! Arsenal's academy has had some catching up to do, but in the last couple years we're starting to see a renewed focus on youth development pay off, with the likes of Serge Gnabry, Gedion Zelalem, Chuba Akpom, and yesterday's hat-trick hero Jon Toral (on loan to Brentford currently) all very close to, and in some cases appearing in, first-team games this season.
RBM: Arsenal has had an ever-revolving midfield group this season, mainly due to injuries and the need to rest players with all of the concurrent competitions. Is there a preferred group of players that you want to see on the field for the top matches?
TSF: If everyone's healthy and available? Mikel Arteta, Aaron Ramsey, and Mesut Özil every day. Sadly, those three are almost never healthy simultaneously.
RBM: Finally, do you have a prediction for this week's match? Any key players to keep an eye on?
TSF: Predictions: I'm really, really bad at these. Given that it's a home game, and given that Arsenal are going to want to put Monaco completely behind them, I'm going with a nervy 2-1 Arsenal win (but reserving the right to think it may end up 4-1 Everton). As for who to watch, there's been some debate recently as to who Arsenal's first choice goalkeeper should be between Wojciech Szczesny and David Ospina; Ospina was probably going to get the start this weekend, but as of right now, after yesterday, nothing's certain. Also, watch Özil as much as you can, because he's delightful to watch.
Thanks again to Paul for taking the time to answer our questions. Enjoy the match and COYB!