Everton will look to heap more misery on former player Mikel Arteta when the beleaguered Arsenal manager brings his struggling side to Goodison Park on Saturday.
This weekend marks a year since Carlo Ancelotti was appointed Everton boss, and Arteta Arsenal manager, and the Blues go into this game nine points ahead of the Gunners after 13 matches.
While Ancelotti’s men are three unbeaten, with successive wins over Chelsea and Leicester in their last two outings, Arsenal have drawn two and lost four of their previous six league games.
Ancelotti and Arteta were both in the Goodison Park stands following their appointments when these two sides met this weekend a year ago, and churned out a dismal 0-0 draw. Both managers will be hoping for better this time around.
RBM: Firstly, how much pressure should Mikel Arteta be under currently, and do you still have faith in him?
Aaron: It’s interesting that you say ‘should’, because I think there is a difference between how much pressure he should be under and how much pressure I think he is actually under, internally.
He should be under a lot of pressure. Arsenal are off to their worst start in decades. For a club with Arsenal’s history and aspirations, it’s hard to imagine a manager surviving a start like Arsenal have had. And yet, here we are. I have a hunch that Arteta will be at the club at least through the end of the season. And I think he should be.
The immediate improvement at the club when he took over last season, and the FA Cup win, show that he is capable as a manager. Teams have ups and downs. Arsenal are in a particularly nasty down period. The club isn’t going to get anywhere by cycling through managers and buying players to suit each new manager. Arsenal don’t have that kind of money.
RBM: Realistically, how much of Arteta’s squad is good enough to play for Arsenal?
Aaron: More than you’d think. Arsenal’s problem is more one of squad construction than of who the players are. Yes, there are a few players who probably aren’t at the level that a club like Arsenal are looking for, but that’s true at all clubs, even the best ones.
Arsenal have a gaping hole in the centre of the pitch. If you look at the passing maps, the activity maps, anything - it’s as if the middle of the pitch from the penalty spot to about 35 yards out is surrounded by a force field that physically prevents anybody in an Arsenal kit from entering. If you filled that hole (in the January window, Edu, I’m begging you) that the pieces would fall into place and Arsenal would look a much better side.
It’s weird to think that one player would make such a huge difference, but if you have a drink and no straw to stir it, it doesn’t turn out well. That said, there are some guys that probably don’t belong. Guys like Willian, Cedric Soares, Sead Kolasinac, and Sokratis probably aren’t good enough. The bad news for Arsenal is that Willian and Soares will be around for a while; they’re on deals that will keep them at the club for a couple more seasons.
Other guys, like David Luiz and Shkodran Mustafi are inconsistent, but on their day, they are good enough. The squad isn’t as poor as some would have you think. There is stuff to work with.
RBM: Given their poor start, what would now represent a successful season for Arsenal in your opinion?
Aaron: Arsenal would do really well to battle back into a Europa League spot, but without significant improvement soon, that’s not very likely. I think I’d be happy with getting back to the top half and a trophy; either the FA Cup again or the Europa League.
Arsenal are a good enough cup team. Consistency is the problem, not overall talent level. That lends itself well enough to making a run.
RBM: Arsenal at least stopped their run of home defeats in Wednesday’s 1-1 draw with Southampton. Did you see much improvement there?
Aaron: The performance was better. Nicolas Pepe got himself into dangerous positions and generated shots, which is more than Arsenal have been managing of late.
But still, the goal came from a heroic run by Bukayo Saka rather than a repeatable pattern of play, and that remains a concern.
RBM: Arsenal have had seven Premier League red cards since Arteta’s appointment a year ago, four more than any other side. Can you put your finger on what might be behind this lack of discipline?
Aaron: I don’t think there is a lack of discipline. It’s just an unfortunate coincidence of timing. I wrote many, many words about Gabriel’s two yellows [against Southampton] that can be boiled down to this: I get it, I have no problem with it, but also, similar situations frequently play out without a player picking up two quick yellows and getting sent off.
Pepe’s and Granit Xhaka’s straight reds were moments of madness. Players have them. Pepe has got to be smarter not to put himself in that position - all footballers should know that doing what he did will get them sent off - but there wasn’t much in it. I think both were more the culmination of frustration with the lack of results than anything else.
Eddie Nketiah’s last season was a young player trying to do too much. And David Luiz’s, well, that’s what you get with him.
RBM: Mesut Ozil won’t be involved on Saturday given he’s not in Arsenal’s 25-man Premier League squad. What have you made of the way Arteta’s dealt with him?
Aaron: I don’t think there is anything to make of it. There is something non-football-related going on behind the scenes that neither side will talk about, and I think it’s coming from over Arteta’s head. We may never get the full story.
Again, I think it’s an unfortunate confluence of circumstances that Arsenal happen to be missing a player who does exactly what Ozil does, limited as he may be at this stage of his career, at the precise time that he is having a very public spat with the club over being frozen out.
RBM: How do you expect Arsenal to set up on Saturday?
Aaron: Arsenal have been playing a 4-3-3 lately, but it’s a fluid system that asks a lot of the full-backs. Gabriel’s suspension may change that, but it’s more likely that Pablo Mari takes his place in the formation.
But who knows. Arteta has been tinkering with the line-up for a while, trying to find the right combination to spark something. He made the swap from the 3-5-2 a while back to get another attacking player onto the pitch, but as we know, it hasn’t worked out. The attack has looked as bad or worse. Maybe it’s time to swap back.
RBM: Which of Arsenal’s players do you think could cause Everton the most problems?
Aaron: Saka, and it’s not close. He’s one of the few bright spots at the club and is a dangerous creator cutting inside off the left wing. Pepe can do the same thing from the right but not as consistently. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Pepe lose the ball on every dribble attempt, and I wouldn’t be surprised for him to skin his man and curl one in from 20 yards out. The latter being much less likely than the former.
It’s probably too soon for Gabriel Martinelli to make a return to first team action (he’s been rehabbing from a meniscus injury that required surgery), but he’s back in full training and has been playing with the youth sides. He had ten goals in 26 appearances in all competitions last season and could provide the spark the attack needs. It’s tough to gauge precisely where his fitness is. He could make the expanded bench, or he could be another week or two away.
Speaking of expanded benches, keep an eye out for Emile Smith Rowe and Folarin Balogun. They won’t start, but if Arsenal need a goal late on, one of their numbers might come up on the board. They have both made an instant impact in each of their two recent Europa League appearances.
RBM: Finally, what’s your prediction for Saturday’s game?
Aaron: I’m leaning 2-1 to Everton. Not having Gabriel will hurt, and I have no faith in the Gunners to score more than a goal. I think if Gabriel were not suspended and Thomas Partey were healthy, they’d manage a draw, but when it rains, it pours.
Everything that could go wrong at Arsenal is doing just that, including the big deadline day signing being out more than half the time he’s been at the club. But it’s always darkest before the dawn, right?
Our thanks to Aaron for his time.