The Reality of the Situation
At the Emirates Stadium in midweek, Everton set up as anticipated - in a manner that allowed them to successfully ambush the league leaders a month earlier: a narrow 4-5-1 formation, leaving few gaps and relying on energetic defending as a team. Congesting the middle of the park with three combative midfielders and doubling up against Arsenal’s flanking attackers out wide. Bullying the opposition with physicality and aggression. Fast, direct breaks when possession had been won. Effective use of set-pieces.
Mikel Arteta would have known this. He is also a manager who is closely bonded to a specific approach, which has worked exceptionally well for the Gunners all season. If predictability is the Basque’s weakness, then confidence in his methods - transmitted to his players - is his strength. After all, he had guided his side to 18 wins from 24 league fixtures playing his style of football, eight of eleven at home, being held only by Newcastle United and - due to a bizarre error by VAR - Brentford. Only Manchester City had defeated them on home turf in the league.
Given Everton’s appalling away record over the past two campaigns, it was more in hope than expectation that the team would be able to gain any kind of a result in North London on Wednesday night, hope based entirely on what they’d been able to achieve against the same opposition at Goodison Park; but, of course this contest was taking place at the Emirates. In front of their home crowd, the hosts were more confident and played at a higher tempo, constantly probing for openings, moving the visitors around, looking for a lapse, a gap to exploit.
For almost 40 minutes Sean Dyche’s plan worked and hope remained. Under considerable pressure, the Blues remained stubbornly resilient, composed in their shape, even looking the more likely to break the stalemate. In the first 39 minutes, Arsenal managed only a single effort, Jorginho’s off-target shot, which generated an xG (Expected Goals) of just 0.02, though they’d dominated possession (65%). Neal Maupay had racked up a trio of chances in reply, with a combined xG of 0.63 and forced two saves from Aaron Ramsdale. But again - crucially - a lack of composure, or final ball precision, probably both, thwarted Everton’s efforts to take what would have been a vitally important lead.
The Blues defence was finally unpicked in the 40th minute, one-time club target Oleksandr Zinchenko’s pass threaded through a gap between Vitalii Mykolenko and Michael Keane for Bukayo Saka to collect, spin and finish adroitly past Jordan Pickford high at the near post. The backline and midfield have been criticised for allowing the Arsenal forward so much space and Zinchenko a lane to pass through, but it was a momentary lapse in shape and spacing, which opened up for little more than a second. It’s unrealistic to expect a team to play flawless defence for 90 minutes against such capable operators.
Given the lack of goals in this Toffees side, any hope of a win disappeared at that point and a hammer blow followed when Idrissa Gueye was bafflingly robbed of the ball facing his own goal a few minutes minutes later, allowing Gabriel Martinelli to effectively end the game as a sporting contest.
Experimentation Yields Predictable Conclusions
The Blues were not coming back from a two-goal deficit and with a trip to the City Ground to face Nottingham Forest on Sunday, in what is something of a relegation six-pointer, making some changes to the team in the second half with one eye on that important match was understandable, necessary even. Dyche’s withdrawal of Gana during the interval was not a complete shock, given his critical, inexplicable error, but more surprising was the identity of his replacement as a holding midfielder - Mason Holgate.
The centre back has only played five games this campaign, none in almost four months and all in defence. His last appearance was in Everton’s embarrassing 4-1 EFL Cup exit to Bournemouth, when he’d been unceremoniously hauled off after 50 minutes following a blunder which cost the Toffees a goal. The 26-year old had not featured in the Premier League since August, the team’s fourth match. He’s been fielded on a few occasions as a defensive midfielder, but only once - in Duncan Ferguson’s first stint as caretaker, a 1-1 draw with Manchester United - could the experiment have been said to have worked out, and that took place more than four years ago.
The last three iterations of Holgate as a midfielder have combined a cameo from the bench - which saw him red carded within ten minutes - and two poor performances in defeats last season, against West Ham United and Burnley. On Wednesday, he avoided calamity, but again looked lost in the middle of the park. In 45 minutes, Holgate made only a single ball recovery, no tackles or interceptions, was dribbled past once and completed just five of eight passing attempts as Everton’s shape started to fall apart in the second period; he did make a couple of blocks, in fairness. Still, it’s puzzling to me that Dyche would field him in this position, given there’s ample evidence that he lacks the concentration, technical qualities and knowledge to play it competently.
Likewise, the introduction of Ben Godfrey, for Seamus Coleman in the 61st minute and also making just a fifth league appearance, though unlike Holgate he had at least played this calendar year. Shunted in at right back, a position he’d played only a handful of times previously - the last 17 months ago - it’s fair to say he struggled badly. Sometimes deployed as an effective defensive full back on the left side, the right-footed Godfrey seems oddly ill-at-ease on the opposite flank, which was borne out by the numbers: one ball recovery, no interceptions or tackles, dribbled past once and contributing only with a single block and a few clearances. His passing was woeful, just three completions from six attempts.
Positionally suspect and lacking awareness even at centre half, Godfrey looked uncomfortable and was soon targeted by Arsenal, to great effect. The Gunners switched their focus after he was substituted on: only 31% of their play came down Everton’s right during the first hour, against Coleman, but increased to 43% over the last half hour. It’s concerning that the manager seemed unaware that both players had performed poorly when used in these positions in the past.
In combination, the introduction of Holgate and Godfrey served to destabilise what had been - one big error apart - a stable team structure during the first period. The hosts racked up an xG of 2.06 in the second half, with ten unanswered shots crashing in between the 67th and 85th minute as they ran riot.
Let’s hope that the manager has learned some valuable lessons and we do not see these players used again in this way going forward.
In a match of subpar performances from the visitors, Dwight McNeil stood out again. The winger put in a typical strong defensive effort, leading the Blues with a combined seven tackles and interceptions and contributed 15 ball recoveries, more than double that of any other Everton player. He wasn’t able to get forward too much, but completed an impressive 100% of four dribbles and drove inside to force a save from Ramsdale with a strong left-footed shot in the 62nd minute.
Amadou Onana played the full 90, but put in another anonymous performance. He struggled to impact the game, managing just 24 touches, a pass accuracy of 55.6%, and from a defensive standpoint having little effect: one tackle, an interception, a block and only three recoveries. His primary contribution was in battling for aerial balls, winning four of eight contests, but we saw this under Frank Lampard and it’s a poor way to use the tall midfielder, however tempting it may be to do so.
I was pleased to see the unimpressive Conor Coady withdrawn from the starting lineup, but puzzled by the replacement being Michael Keane, making a first league start of the campaign, rather than Yerry Mina. Without a game in almost four months and seemingly with no future on Merseyside, the forgotten man has a pre-existing relationship with the manager, from their days together at Burnley and he actually played a decent enough game, showing composure in possession, with a pass success rate of 81.5%, second only to Gueye (100%). Still, in a match where Dyche ended up with four centre halves on the pitch for the last 30 minutes, it’s beyond my understanding how Mina, the club’s best defender was the one left unused.