Sean Dyche suffered the first home setback of his short tenure as Everton manager last Saturday, as his side fell to a somewhat unfortunate 2-0 defeat to Aston Villa. The Blues generally outperformed the visitors, but failed to convert their chances in the middle part of the game, during which they exerted significant control but were unable to rebound after falling behind from Ollie Watkins’ 63rd minute penalty.
Three of the new boss’s four games in charge have taken place in the relative comfort zone of Goodison Park, generating two wins against that lone setback, but on the road it’s early days to assess what impact the ex-Burnley boss will have on the team’s dreadful away form, which stretches back to the beginning of last season.
The Toffees did hit the woodwork immediately prior to giving up a first goal to Liverpool at Anfield and an argument could be made that Dyche may have eked out a point - or better - had James Tarkowski’s header been just a little more accurate.
In the end though, the Reds were far superior and ran out 2-0 victors. Dyche gets another tough draw for his second attempt to reshape Everton into a tougher proposition on the road, as the Blues travel to the Emirates Stadium tonight for a quick rematch with Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal.
In 2021-22, Arteta’s third full campaign in charge of the Gunners, he managed to progress them to a fifth-place finish, qualifying for the Europa League as a result, but missing out on a much longed for return to Champions League competition by two points. Despite this improvement, there were some dissenting voices to be found amongst the team’s supporter base, so there was a little pressure to push on further this term.
The club supported the Basque with a net transfer spend of €136m the previous year and backed him again last summer to the tune of €108m, bringing in proven winners of silverware, in the forms of Gabriel Jesus and Oleksandr Zinchenko, from Manchester City and continuing to move on older players, or those that had not delivered. What the manager was left with was an exciting, younger outfit with the potential to make an impact during the new campaign.
It’s fair to say few pundits (or, presumably Arsenal fans) envisaged the team making such a spectacular start to the season, which saw them win 13 of their opening 14 matches in all competitions, losing only to Manchester United at Old Trafford. Following a surprising away draw with Southampton and a Europa League loss to PSV Eindhoven, the Gunners resumed their forward march by winning nine of the next eleven, a sole defeat being in the EFL Cup, when fielding an understrength side.
Largely imperious in forging a healthy lead in the Premier League, Arsenal then demonstrated that it may not be entirely all plain sailing with a four-game stumble. First, they suffered an FA Cup exit to Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium, though again Arteta had selected a weakened team; defeat away to Everton followed however, which few had seen coming, even the boldest Blues. A tie with Brentford at the Emirates, in which the Gunners enjoyed the bulk of play, but were also bullied at times, undermined confidence further and in the matchup of the season to date, at home against City, they were taken apart in the second half.
Since that pivotal match, they’ve rebounded with two wins, the first a last-ditch win against Aston Villa and last time out a controlling 1-0 shutout of a toothless Leicester City.
Style of Play
Arteta is firmly wedded to his 4-3-3 formation, having used it in every league game this campaign. Thomas Partey will act as a single pivot, allowing midfield partners Granit Xhaka and Martin Ødegaard to push higher up: the former as a box-to-box player, the latter as an advanced orchestrator of play. Zinchenko is used in a manner to that favoured by the Spaniard’s mentor over at City, Pep Guardiola, as a kind of inverted full-back, spending much of his time moving into midfield. On the opposite flank, Ben White shows impressive athleticism in providing overlaps, with Bakayo Saka cutting inside on his left foot.
The side play a possession game, sitting fourth in the table in both share of the ball (59.2%) and passing accuracy (85.1%). They carry the ball very well, making the most dribbles in the league (9.0 per match) and generate a lot of shooting opportunities (16.1 per game). Arsenal sit behind only City in scoring goals from open play, though they have been effective from set-pieces also. They like to attack through the middle, whilst also creating mismatches out wide and prefer to work the ball into the box. The Gunners do not cross the ball overmuch and don’t enjoy a particularly high success rate.
Defensively, they are a much improved outfit, having conceded just 23 league goals, in line with their xGA (Expected Goals Allowed) and are allowing opponents only 8.3 shots on goal per 90 minutes. They press effectively and with intensity in the opposition third, relying on the pace and athleticism of central defender Gabriel and William Saliba to deal with balls over their high line. In theory they are vulnerable on the flanks, should they lose possession when attacking with many bodies forward, but - much like City - opposing wingers are typically very deep helping out the defence.
One area in which they may be exploitable is in defending aerially. They sit bottom of the charts in terms of aerial duels won per match (11.8) and have only a 43.7% success rate.
Saliba has been exceptional in his first term starting at Arsenal, following a succession of development loans. Tall (57.1% aerial duel success) and athletic, the 21-year old shows remarkable composure for one so young, boasting a 91% pass completion rate and being beaten on the dribble only three times all season.
Ødegaard drifts around in the half-spaces, looking to do damage in the final third. He’s continued to improve and has already exceeded his attacking output totals from a strong campaign last time out, scoring eight and providing another six assists.
Saka is enjoying another stellar season, contributing 17 league goals and assists combined. He manages 6.04 touches per 90 in the opposition penalty area and picks up a lot of fouls (a team-leading 42).
In their last outing, Arsenal reduced Leicester to just a single off-target attempt on goal at the King Power Stadium, a 72nd minute effort that generated a pitiful 0.02 xG (Expected Goals) - an all-time low for that metric. Clearly, Everton are a side without a lot of creativity and scoring power, so what can be achieved here?
Dyche seems certain to set up in the same way as he did a month ago, with Alex Iwobi and Dwight McNeil providing defensive support to the team’s full-backs and an aggressive midfield three blocking the middle of the pitch and bullying the hosts. It figures that the Gunners will dominate possession to an even greater extent than they managed at Goodison and that the visitors’ defence will be pushed back deeply.
Everton’s best route to goal may be via set-pieces again. For this reason and also because he’s simply a superior defender to Conor Coady, I’m hoping to see Yerry Mina return to the starting eleven. The only other change worth considering is in deploying Demarai Gray in the centre forward role; his pace and direct running could prove invaluable on the counter and there seems little chance the team’s leading scorer will be trusted to play wide, given his defensive limitations.
If the Blues concede first, then they have next to no shot at obtaining a result tonight. However, I’m backing the side to resist Arsenal’s pressure and bag the first goal themselves, giving them a genuine chance at a vital, unlikely away point.
Prediction: Arsenal 1 Everton 1
Stats provided courtesy of fbref.com, transfermarkt.co.uk and whoscored.com