An Inevitable Flatness
Following on from Everton securing Premier League survival on what was an unforgettable night at Goodison Park last Thursday, came this trip to north London with nothing at stake for the visitors. Amid wholesale changes to personnel (six) from their last outing, it was always going to be a tough ask for the Blues to actually show up at the Emirates Stadium, in more than just a purely physical sense. After the emotional high midweek, a flat undercooked performance ensued, resembling a preseason game in many ways but with the high goal count and occasional comedic defending that we sometimes see on the final day of the season. Unfortunately, Arsenal had much to play for coming into this match, at least until news started filtering in of Tottenham Hotspur’s systematic dismantling of long-relegated Norwich City and with that, a vanishing possibility of Champions League qualification for Mikel Arteta’s outfit.
Whereas the home side started fast and went about their task of securing a win in the hope that the Canaries could somehow do them a favour, the Blues simply absorbed their beating manfully. That is really the best you could say about this almost predictably poor effort, in truth. Penned into their own half - even penalty area at times - the Toffees rarely touched the ball during the early stages of the game, hovering around ten per cent possession over the first quarter hour and an appalling passing success rate from those rare occasions they made some incidental acquaintance with the spherical object that is the focal point of a match. Poor old Asmir Begovic, handed a rare start in goal endured the thankless task of facing 17 shots in the first half - seven in the opening 12 minutes. Rumours are that Everton are considering offering the Bosnian a contract extension; he’ll be hoping that if this materializes then this match won’t be reflective of future outings.
True, the result mattered not at all to Everton, but the manner of defeat was a disappointment after the high of Thursday’s great escape.
The Final Nail
It was to be expected that there’d be heavy rotation for this match, from a team that performed heroics less than three days earlier against Crystal Palace and so it transpired. Those that would have likely featured, at least in some capacity if there was anything on this game, such as Jordan Pickford, Richarlison, Yerry Mina, Ben Godfrey and Allan were absent entirely from the squad at the Emirates; the likes of Seamus Coleman, Yitaliy Mykolenko and Anthony Gordon were rotated to the bench. Opportunities were given to Jonjoe Kenny (out of contract next month), youngster Jarrad Branthwaite, Tom Davies - off a lengthy injury layoff and Dele Alli, an impactful substitute on Thursday was handed his first start since joining the club in January. Unfortunately, Everton’s squad makeup being what it is, the back four that worked so well during the second half against Palace was shelved and we witnessed a variant of the back three system that Frank Lampard had started that game with.
Somehow, a team overladen with wingers ended up with only Demarai Gray available to start, so the Blues ended up with an odd four man box in midfield, Dele and the former Leicester City man behind Dominic Calvert-Lewin and in front of Davies and Abdoulaye Doucoure. Quite what the intention was is unclear, other than hoping to play off the front man’s knockdowns. Everton had no width at all, with the right-footed Kenny no threat on the left and Alex Iwobi not a natural wide player - besides the fact that both rarely were able to get into advanced crossing positions anyway, such was Arsenal’s total control. The system was a miserable failure on every level. Doucoure, a one-man midfield screen who seemingly covered every blade of grass at Goodison last time out, understandably appeared exhausted and was substituted off in the 37th minute, having had five touches of the ball and attempting two passes.
Lampard will be looking towards a rebuild of the squad during what promises to be an eventful summer transfer market for the Blues and will surely want his new team to play a certain way, in line with his philosophy and preferred system. Hopefully, this will signal the end of a back three experiment which has been a product of necessity, rather than desire. It’s helped dig Everton out of trouble at times, but the limitations were once again laid bare yesterday.
Everton’s winter transfer business was symbolic of the club’s entire muddled approach this season. Five additions were made as the club sought to reverse its fortunes on the pitch and halt an inexorable slide towards a relegation battle. Typically, who signed off on which player largely remains a mystery. Winger Anwar El Gazi, signed on loan from Aston Villa with an option to buy, saw a grand total of 13 minutes action; a complete waste of the player’s time and Everton’s money. Fullback Nathan Patterson was unceremoniously hauled off at halftime in an FA Cup tie against lowly Boreham Wood, before unluckily suffering a season-ending injury when due to make a delayed first league appearance for his new club. Puzzlingly overlooked by Lampard in favour of Kenny, it’s to be hoped that the young Scottish international is given a chance to compete for a starting role next season.
The remaining three newcomers at least had varying opportunities to contribute. Mykolenko racked up more than 1,000 minutes in the league and kicked on after a not-unexpected initial period of acclimation to English football. He ably filled the gap left by the sale of Lucas Digne, offering balance to the team and his absence was sorely felt on Sunday, Kenny once again toiling fruitlessly as a left-sided defender. Donny van de Beek provided a sole high point amidst the carnage of Everton’s heavy loss at the Emirates, scoring his first goal for the club. The Dutchman ended up making only seven appearance for the Blues, five as a starter; through no particular fault of his, the team lost six of those seven matches, scoring only twice whilst shipping a woeful 17 goals. The on-loan Manchester United player missed a big chunk of games with injury problems and when he was used, it was as a deep-lying midfielder. Accordingly, we were rarely able to see him utilize his best assets: intelligent movement and finishing in higher areas of the pitch. Ultimately, he was wasted and it appears likely that we’ve seen the last of him in a Royal Blue shirt.
As for Dele, what a strange chapter this has been. A high-profile signing, albeit one enduring a mid-career slump, a move to Everton to play under a manager who championed his talent seemed to offer much. But the initial effort to get him match-fit slackened off and before Thursday, he’d played only a combined 50m over the prior two months, not appearing at all in seven of ten matches. It was looking like the move to sign the player from Spurs on a structured deal could be dead on arrival. Hope was rekindled against Palace, as the attacking midfielder came on for the hopeless Andre Gomes after 45 minutes and helped turn the game for the Blues. Back was the old Dele, demanding the ball, using it well and showing a desire for the fight. On Sunday, he was rendered ineffective by the awful formation and a patchwork line-up, which was unfortunate. Lampard will need to find a way to utilize the former England star in the future. Unquestionably the talent is still there - or much of it, anyway - and we saw the old competitiveness too, lurking just beneath the surface. The club will almost certainly start paying the first instalments of what could end up a significant fee next season. The player must be put in a position to succeed and the best chance for that to happen would be in a system that emphasises possession and progressive play.