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Everton limping to the finish at the Emirates

Checked-out Toffees face a team fighting for the Champions League

Everton v Arsenal - Premier League Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

Everton finally eked out a win last week but it was far from a vintage performance:

The Toffees have a look of a team that is mostly checked out at this point in the season, having shored up a 7th-place position and facing a summer break of under 10 weeks before they have to play in a Europa League qualifying tie.

For the final match of the season they head to North London to face Arsenal, who are in a very different position.

Arsenal overview

The Gunners have had a weird season. After losing their season opener against Liverpool, they went on a 14-match unbeaten run that included 10 wins. Then however, they lost consecutive matches to Everton (remember that?!) and Manchester City. Meanwhile, Chelsea was in the midst of a 13-game winning streak. Despite their great early form, that little hiccup was enough to put a dent in Arsenal’s title hopes, and they never really got close again:

They recovered decently enough in January but then hit another bumpy patch in the league: an 8-match run between 31 January and 10 April which yielded 2 wins, 1 draw, and 5 losses. They were outscored 11-16 in goals and 9.8-11.2 in expected goals over this period. The team looked bad, they were playing poorly, and speculation about Arsène Wenger’s future was everywhere.

So, Wenger did something which strikes me as kind of remarkable: he changed his team’s formation. That may not seem like a big deal, but switching to a back-three with just 8 crucially important games left in the season when you’ve played a 4-2-3-1 for nearly every minute previously is a bold move.

The early results were good but the underlying performances not so much; Arsenal were out-xGed by 0.5 in wins over both Middlesbrough and Leicester City. Then, they were totally dominated by Tottenham Hotspur at White Hart Lane. This left their top-four hopes dangling by a thread:

Performances have picked up considerably since then, though, and Arsenal’s back-three has produced 4 straight victories in which they also put up more expected goals than their opponents. With a few games in hand lingering, they were able to sneak up on Liverpool, and they now sit just one point out of fourth place. Still though, FiveThirtyEight has their chances of Champions League qualification at just 15%. This is largely due to the fact that Liverpool face already-relegated Boro on Sunday whereas Arsenal host Everton.

Long story short: Wenger could actually tinker his way into the Champions League this year and avoid missing out for the first time since he took over at the club (19 years!). He will need Liverpool to crap the bed. He will also need to find a way to get three points on Sunday, which is where Everton come in.

Matching up with Everton

The Toffees have not put in a decent performance since their 3-1 win over Burnley in mid-April. The attack in particular has gone completely silent, with Romelu Lukaku a notable absentee from the scoresheet. That will have to somehow change if Everton are to get a result.

Central to Everton’s attacking issues is, as usual, their lack of creativity. Against Watford they resorted to having Idrissa Gueye be the team’s primary playmaker:

This....isn’t a good thing. Gueye is great at many things; being a #10 isn’t really one of them. Everton’s failure to find a consistent creative force from the midfield despite the ever-presence of Ross Barkley in the middle could be one reason why many supporters and potentially even the manager seem surprisingly indifferent to his potential departure. In any case, Everton need to be prepared to face 3 center backs and a resurgent Granit Xhaka crowding the central defensive areas on Sunday.

On the other side of things, Arsenal have been clicking lately, though games against Stoke City and Sunderland can do that to you. The presence of Arsenal’s wing backs mean that Alexis Sánchez and Mesut Özil are as free as ever to find dangerous spaces and pick apart the defense. The former has 4 goals and an assist to his name in the last 3 games.

Sitting at 6th in the xG for rankings suggest the offense does have weaknesses, and one is probably their reluctance to be direct: they have required more pass completions per shot taken than every team except Middlesbrough this year. Everton would do well to indulge this excessive patience and let Arsenal pass harmlessly in non-threatening areas.

To be honest, I’m not sure there is much more to say—I expect Everton to come out in a 4-3-3 again and play mostly like they have been recently, which is to say somewhat uninspired. The fact that a win guarantees Liverpool’s place in the Champions League next year is hardly a tempting carrot to be dangling. As a supporter I will try to enjoy the match as I always do—and if Middlesbrough take an early lead at Anfield the day could get interesting—but my mind, like many others I imagine, will be thinking mostly of the offseason, which could be one of Everton’s most important in years.