Everton will look to end their five-game winless run in the Premier League when they visit Arsenal on Friday.
The Gunners have come in for virtually universal criticism this week, as well as the other 11 clubs involved, having initially signed up to the derided European Super League.
They withdrew from the proposed competition on Wednesday, with all six English clubs who were set to represent the country in the competition dropping out.
This season has been tough for Arsenal - they sit ninth in the Premier League, but are in the Europa League semi-finals, and despite losing at Everton in December, the Toffees have yet to win at the Emirates Stadium.
Ahead of Friday’s game, we spoke to Aaron Lerner, writer for and manager of SB Nation’s Arsenal blog, The Short Fuse:
RBM: Firstly, we can only really start with the European Super League. What was your initial reaction to Arsenal joining it, and how do you feel now that they’ve withdrawn?
Aaron: I’m not sure my personal feelings will reflect those of the rest of the fanbase who reacted much quicker and more negatively than I did. I tried to avoid having a knee-jerk, emotional reaction to it and tried to look at things critically.
My initial thought was that I didn’t love the idea, but that if there was going to be a Super League with a whole bunch of money wrapped up in it, better to be in than out. As I thought more and more about it and read others’ reactions, I wound up really not liking the idea they put forward.
But I also don’t mind the idea of a continental league if it were formatted differently. Say, two 16-team leagues with promotion and relegation between the two and a way for teams to drop out of the pyramid entirely to make way for new clubs to come in.
I like the idea of getting to see top teams play each other more frequently than we do right now, and I think a tweaked structure that guaranteed the preservation and importance of the domestic leagues might have been successful.
RBM: Arsenal were the first of the six English clubs to issue an apology in a statement. How far do you think that will go to repairing their relationship with supporters?
Aaron: For some fans, I think the apology will be enough. For others like me, the apology was decent, it hit the right notes, but I would also like to see concrete action taken towards repairing the relationship with supporters - namely an increased voice and some sort of consultation when making similarly massive decisions.
And for some fans, this may have permanently changed their relationship to the club. I don’t think many fans will abandon Arsenal entirely, but a handful may.
RBM: Should Arsenal, and other clubs who’ve dropped out, still be punished? If so, what do you think a fair punishment would be?
Aaron: Well, I’m not sure you can say that the clubs got all the way to dropping out. They definitely announced an intention, but how far they got towards following through on that intention is an open question.
It was by far the furthest step in the brinkmanship game over money and format negotiations with UEFA and the Champions League the big clubs have ever taken. But at the end of the day, I think it was just that - a move in the game. A bargaining tactic. I don’t think The Super League was ever going to start. The clubs were trying to get more out of UEFA, and if UEFA had refused to budge, I think they would have sheepishly come back into the fold.
If UEFA really feels punishment is necessary, I think a meaningful fine (as opposed to a slap on the wrist amount) would be acceptable.
RBM: In terms of Arsenal this season, how would you assess their campaign so far?
Aaron: In a word - disappointing. I had hoped that the improved defence shown last season under Mikel Arteta and the FA Cup win indicated that Arsenal would be good enough to have an outside shot at the top four and at least do well enough in the league to re-qualify for the Europa League. But an absolutely brutal six-week stretch in the fall quickly killed that.
On top of that, Arsenal’s big-money signing, Thomas Partey, has been injured for what feels like half the time he’s been at the club and has been slow to regain his form when he’s come back from injuries. It feels almost like a lost season for him, which isn’t great given that he’s 27 and in his ‘peak years,’ so to speak.
But this leads quite nicely into your next question.
RBM: Are you still behind Mikel Arteta?
Aaron: Absolutely. Arsenal have been quite good since Boxing Day, competing for top four numbers in terms of advanced stats.
It took him a while, but once he discovered that Emile Smith Rowe can excel in a central, creative role, the team really took off. They added Martin Odegaard, who may be available to face Everton, as another player who can fill that role, and things have gone pretty well.
Arsenal have a bunch of talented young players but are still remaking a squad that was in desperate need of an overhaul. Arteta seems to have the right ideas on how to do that, and I think the on-field performances in last season’s FA Cup run and since Boxing Day have more than earned him the right to keep captaining the ship.
RBM: Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang seems to have come in for more criticism for his performances this season. Do you think he should still have a future at Arsenal?
Aaron: Also absolutely. He’s had a rough season. The entire team got off to a slow start. He slept on the floor of an airport for one international break. He caught malaria on another. His mother was so ill that he had to take time away from the team. People have been spreading unfounded, inaccurate rumours of his divorce.
He also played in multiple matches for Arsenal while not feeling 100 per cent before finding out that he had malaria. So, the people who question his commitment or his effort can sod off.
When not dealing with off-the-field issues, his numbers have been hampered by Arsenal’s setup. Arteta has often used him on the left this season to accommodate Alexandre Lacazette through the middle. Aubameyang’s offensive production numbers are significantly better playing through the middle. They’re down a little from last year, and last year was down a little from the year before that, but that’s to be expected from a guy on the other side of 30.
He’s still an extremely dangerous striker, and if he plays predominantly through the centre next year (because I expect Lacazette to be sold), he’ll score 20+ league goals.
RBM: How do you expect Arsenal to set up on Friday?
Aaron: That’s a very good question because both Lacazette and Aubameyang are unavailable. The next man up is Eddie Nketiah, but I have a suspicion that Arteta might play Gabriel Martinelli through the middle - or maybe that’s just my hope. It’ll probably be Nketiah.
The rest of the line-up should be as it has been. Bernd Leno in goal. Granit Xhaka deputising at left-back. Rob Holding and Gabriel at centre-back, although he might swap Pablo Mari for Gabriel. Calum Chambers at RB. Partey and Dani Ceballos in the middle of the park. Nicolas Pepe on one side, Bukayo Saka on the other. Emile Smith Rowe in the advanced central creative role.
RBM: Which of Arsenal’s players do you think could cause Everton the most problems?
Aaron: Saka and Pepe are the danger men for Arsenal. Both have been playing consistently extremely well. They’re both as much of a threat to beat their man with guile on the dribble as they are to make intelligent, pacey runs around the outside to stretch the defence.
Smith Rowe is also one to keep an eye on. His combination play and secondary runs unbalance defensive setups and he’s got a knack for flitting between players into pockets of space to receive and quickly move the ball.
And if Martinelli plays, he’s a menace. He has an unbelievable engine and never seems to stop running and has the skill to go with it. He also has the biggest shoot-first mentality of anybody at Arsenal. He loves to drive into the box and have a go.
RBM: Finally, what’s your prediction for Friday’s game?
Aaron: I think Arsenal will get the better of Everton 2-1 but it could easily go the other way too.
It will be an interesting central midfield battle - that’s what I view as Everton’s biggest strength. But I think Partey and Ceballos should be able to at least hold their own and not get overrun.
I fancy Saka’s and Pepe’s chances against Everton’s wider players, and I think they’ll find plenty of joy. But I don’t relish the thought of Richarlison and Dominic Calvert-Lewin running at Xhaka and Chambers, either.
Our thanks to Aaron for his time.