Everton will look to record three successive league victories for only the second time this season when Arsenal visit Goodison Park on Sunday.
The Blues have a dreadful recent record against the Gunners, who have won the last four meetings between the sides, including trouncing Everton 5-2 and 5-1 last term.
Arsenal are nearing the end of their first season under Unai Emery, and currently sit fourth with a Europa League quarter-final against Napoli to also look forward to.
Their last game saw them beat Newcastle United 2-0 on Monday, their tenth consecutive home league victory at the Emirates Stadium.
It also meant Emery has now equalled the points tally Arsène Wenger managed last season - 63 - with seven league games remaining.
Ahead of Sunday’s game, RBM spoke to Paul DeBruler (@misterpdb), editor for SB Nation’s Arsenal blog, The Short Fuse:
RBM: Firstly, Unai Emery has clearly improved Arsenal markedly this season. What do you think is the biggest indicator of the progress made under the Spaniard?
Paul: While it doesn’t always look like it from game to game, Arsenal’s defence has got substantially better over the course of this season.
Last year, they gave up 1.66 goals a game; this year, they’re at 1.25. That’s still not great - Spurs are at 1.06, Liverpool at an unreal 0.59, and Everton are at 1.31 - but it’s a far sight better than last year.
Arsenal’s away form has taken a positive turn as well - winless on the road in 2018 until the last day of the season, they only won four games away from the Emirates all campaign.
This season, they did that by November and are, as of this writing (prior to Wednesday’s games), the sixth-best team in the Premier League away from home, at 1.36 points per game. They’re still not spectacular away, but they’re so much better than they were it’s kind of amazing.
RBM: After two drab final seasons under Wenger, are you at all surprised by how well Emery has fared so far?
Paul: I think I am, yes. I say it that way because Wenger left a big mess behind him squad-wise, and I had no real expectation for any manager to come in and make that pile of parts into a supersonic spaceship in the course of a single season.
They ended last season ageing, not positionally sound, and not terribly inclined to play as a disciplined unit - that last part by design. That’s how Wenger coached; he didn’t so much drill a system into players as turn them loose to do what they do best, without, in many cases, bothering really to explore what that might be in the context of the team.
Emery took over a team that wasn’t really used to structure and positional rigor, and has given them that. There have been a lot of growing pains, and I’m still not sure how well he’ll work out overall, but so far, I give him a qualified thumbs up.
RBM: Where, if anywhere, does Emery need to improve if Arsenal are to become title contenders again?
Paul: He has to get over whatever mysterious beef he has with Mesut Özil and let him loose. It’s undeniable that Arsenal are a better team with Özil than without, and following the dumb decision (which I’m not sure was Emery’s) to let Aaron Ramsey walk for nothing this summer [to Juventus], Arsenal need Özil to be his Özilest.
RBM: Which should more important to Arsenal this season - finishing in the top four or winning the Europa League?
Paul: Well, I love it when teams I love win trophies. But, in the nakedly capitalistic world of the Premier League, I also love the bottomless vat of money that is the Champions League.
People used to mock Wenger regularly for his ‘ambition’ to finish in the Champions League places every year, seemingly over any ambition to win a title, but Premier League teams would kill or die for the level of consistency that sees 20 consecutive Champions League qualifications.
So in all honesty, I’d rather they prioritise getting back to the Champions League, because from that all things, as much as the football purist in me detests this, flow.
RBM: Arsenal’s defensive frailties this season have been well-documented, but do three consecutive clean sheets suggest Emery is beginning to resolve this issue?
Paul: That’s been one of the things about Emery - I have no idea how to answer this question. Two tough losses to start the season, then seven straight wins as part of a 14 game unbeaten run, but five of the last seven games of that run were frustratingly bad draws, and there’s been some ups and downs since. The clean sheets are great, and I hope they are indicative of a team finally switching the defensive light bulb on all at the same time, but this has been such a strange team this year that I’m taking nothing for granted.
RBM: Emery has used Mesut Özil more sparingly than Wenger perhaps did, but has lately recalled him and spoke glowingly about his performance in Monday’s Newcastle win. Do you see a future for the German at the Emirates?
Paul: See above. Özil gets a bad rap because apparently he doesn’t make the right facial expressions, or because he doesn’t run at a billion miles an hour at all times.
It’s ridiculous how much crap he takes when he has what some of those on the other side of the screen (and the other side of the world) deem to be a bad game, by some standard that I don’t really understand.
This is where I will spare you my several-paragraph rant about how body language is literally the worst way humanly possible to evaluate a player or their performance, in any sport, and simply say that a fully functional Özil is crucial to Arsenal’s success.
RBM: How do you expect Arsenal to set up on Sunday?
Paul: Arsenal are pretty healthy, with only Granit Xhaka being a doubt after Monday’s win over Newcastle. Which means we’ll probably see something like:
(3-4-2-1) Leno; Sokratis, Koscielny, Mustafi; Kolasinac, Ramsey, Guendouzi, Maitland-Niles; Iwobi, Özil; Lacazette.
RBM: Which of Arsenal’s players do you think could cause Everton the most problems?
Paul: The aforementioned Ramsey is on a tear right now, like he’s got something to prove to someone.
The supremely awesome partnership of Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is always something defences need to be wary of, if Laca gets the start or even if he just comes on as a sub as he has in the last few games.
RBM: Finally, what’s your prediction for Sunday’s game?
Paul: This is one of the handful of tricky fixtures Arsenal have left. As I said above, their travels have got better, but they’re also inconsistent enough that nothing can be taken for granted from an Arsenal perspective.
As much as I want to predict Arsenal steamrollering Everton, I’m going to go with the boring safe 2-2 prediction.
Our thanks to Paul for his time.