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Everton vs Arsenal: The Opposition View | Back after the international break

The Blues welcome a dangerous opponent they've had recent success against

Arsenal FC v Everton FC - Premier League
MARCH 01: Seamus Coleman (R) of Everton and Oleksandr Zinchenko challenge for the ball
Photo by Tony McArdle/Everton FC via Getty Images

Arsenal and Everton are coming back from the international break in two different mindsets with the same goal.

For the Toffees, the season hasn’t started out great, but three points will lift the side from its basement dwellings while giving the team some real confidence against a top side that they’ve had some success against over the years.

The Gunners, meanwhile, are looking to step on the gas and innovate their form to the standards they set at the beginning of last season. Former Toffee Mikel Arteta will want three points at Goodison Park, and his team will be on the lookout for any mistakes made by a Blue once the match commences.

Ahead of Sunday’s match, we spoke to Aaron Lerner, writer for SB Nation’s Arsenal blog, The Short Fuse:

RBM: Firstly, after another painful letdown that Arsenal and their supporters suffered at the end of last season, this side has played remarkably well again during the start of this campaign; what is the energy around the club and its followers today?

AL: It’s interesting that you describe Arsenal’s play so far this season as “remarkably well” because, depending on who you talk to, especially according to a vocal segment of the support, it hasn’t been so good. I think that’s a vocal minority, the type that thrives off negativity and manufactures content and engagement online by intentionally creating controversy.

I’d say the majority of the supporters are somewhere between a bit nervous and cautiously optimistic. To most eyes, Arsenal haven’t looked quite the team they did last season; certainly not the dominant force they were before the World Cup last fall. The underlying numbers are actually pretty good; it’s just that the football isn’t as pleasing to watch. The Gunners look a bit disjointed like they’re still learning new teammates and new patterns of play.

You don’t have to look incredibly closely (but you do have to look deeper than the surface) to see what Mikel Arteta is doing. He’s trying to make the team more versatile and flexible. Arsenal started to look stale last season, and they became predictable. The additions this summer were meant to enable the team to set up and play in different, varied ways. Ultimately, if that plan comes good, it will make the team better and harder to play against. But in the short term, it has made Arsenal a bit less than, and that half step backward has made some nervous.

RBM: Talk to us about the new boys, please, and include, if you would, Jurien Timber, who is going to be shelved for some time for what we understand; how have they affected the side, and how will they continue to over the future months and years?

AL: Declan Rice is a Rolls Royce footballer, simple as that. He has immediately made Arsenal better and will be at the base of the midfield for years to come, especially with Thomas Partey on the wrong side of 30. It will be fascinating to watch Rice’s development in Arteta’s system, because he’s being asked to do more with the ball and be more involved in the attack than he was at West Ham. He’s taken to it quite well but still has room to grow.

Kai Havertz is the polarizing addition. It’s all a matter of perspective. People see the fee, his talent (especially looking back to his Bundesliga days), and remember his up-and-down track record at Chelsea and bring all that to the table in evaluating him. I think that is a big part of why he’s been a focal point for criticism. The expectations are sky-high and include showing up with the boxcar stats (goals and assists).

But if you look at Havertz vis-a-vis who he is replacing in the formation (Granit Xhaka), he’s already been a fantastic addition. He’s a much better player in the left #8 role than Xhaka was. His off-ball work rate — winning challenges and aerial duels, pressing, and making runs / finding space when Arsenal have the ball — is phenomenal. The chance creation, goals, and assists haven’t come yet, but I think they will. He’s played with different teammates on his side of the pitch pretty much every match in an Arsenal shirt, which hasn’t helped. He’s an excellent player waiting to be unlocked. And I think a bit more consistency, with Zinchenko playing behind him and Gabriel Jesus in front of him, should do the trick.

The loss of Jurrien Timber for the season (presumably) was a big hit. In the limited action we saw from him, he looked a fantastic player, much more than a backup fullback. He was going to be part of the regular rotation in the squad and provide cover for the oft-injured Oleksandr Zinchenko as a fullback who can invert and step into midfield in possession. Timber also showed that he was comfortable playing a more traditional role, overlapping and underlapping the winger. His injury leaves the Gunners basically where they were last season in terms of fullback depth, which isn’t where anybody wanted to be. He’s young and reports are that he’s already recovering well. He’ll be an exciting, important player for years to come.

We’ve yet to see David Raya play in an Arsenal shirt, but I’m excited about him. He’s a top-class goalkeeper and gives the club a 1A and 1B tandem as opposed to a clear starter and backup setup like they had last season with Matt Turner behind Aaron Ramsdale. The expectation is that Raya will play in the League Cup and likely the Champions League. Even though he’s technically on loan from Brentford, Arsenal have an option to buy and are expected to exercise it at the end of the season. It was done as a loan for Financial Fair Play reasons.

RBM: What does this side do better than last year so far? And what about worse?

AL: So far this year, Arsenal are even better at controlling matches. They’re dominating the ball, and that’s allowing them to suppress opposing chances that come off sustained possession. They’re still a bit vulnerable to the break, but part of what Declan Rice adds is another player who is really good at reading the play to win the ball back higher up the pitch.

The press and high recoveries are Arsenal’s first line of defense, and that has gotten even better. Arsenal are actually “pressing” a bit less this season and setting the defensive line a bit deeper, but they’ve gotten even better at stifling opposing buildup play through the middle third. Switching back to Gabriel Magalhaes and William Saliba in the center of defense, as the team did against Manchester United, has helped as well.

As I mentioned earlier, the play isn’t as smooth as it was last year. That’s led to fewer clear-cut scoring chances and less “ooh and ahh” passages of attacking play. The hopeful among the Arsenal analysts and supporters are chalking that up to new players integrating into the system (Havertz and Rice), Arteta tinkering with the tactics, and injuries to Gabriel Jesus and Oleksandr Zinchenko are the primary drivers behind that step back. That should get better as players get fitter and the lineup is more consistent.

RBM: Are there any areas you believe the side will look to strengthen come January?

AL: It’s tough to know, honestly. Arsenal are still in the market for a right winger to rotate with Bukayo Saka, but they don’t want an out-and-out backup. They want a quality player who won’t tank the level of the squad when he comes in for Saka - finding a player good enough to keep the overall level high enough who is also content playing behind someone as talented as Bukayo Saka is difficult.

I think Arsenal will look at the squad as it stands in January and fill places based on injuries and who might be struggling a bit, if any of those exist. It’s more likely we see another move like signing Leandro Trossard, an established player at a position of need, than a big-money splash.

RBM: What are the expectations for this side this season? In terms of trophies and finishes across all four competitions, they’re playing in?

AL: The expectation is that Arsenal will challenge for the Premier League title again, but I’m not sure that is a realistic expectation. The truth is that Manchester City is so far ahead of everyone else in the Premier League that it’s going to take two extraordinary seasons for someone else to win the league — an extraordinarily good season from a competitor like Arsenal and an extraordinarily poor one from Manchester City. You need 85-90 points to win the league. Quite simply, that’s really difficult to do! And even if you get to 90 (or even 97, as Liverpool found out), you still might not be better than City.

I actually think that Arsenal have a better chance of winning the Champions League than the Premier League. Knockout football is weird, and strange things can happen. To win the CL, you’ve just got to be at your best (or better than the other guys) on a few days rather than over the course of a grinding, 38-match season. There are a handful of teams in the CL each year that are good enough to win it, and it comes down to who is fit and playing better on the key days. I think the expectation is that Arsenal make at least a quarterfinal run, and playing in a semifinal or final is not out of the question.

It would be nice to win one of the League or FA Cup, but I’m not sure how focused Mikel Arteta and the squad are on that. Everybody likes to win silverware, and the one semi-legitimate knock on Arteta is that he has just one FA Cup from the COVID summer from his time in charge of the club. There is a general expectation of winning silverware at Arsenal, probably more from the supporters than from within the club. I think the goal is for Arsenal to build a squad that can challenge in all the competitions. But they may not be at that point this season.

RBM: How do you expect Arsenal to set up on Sunday, and who should Everton be watching for in particular when they host the Gunners on Merseyside?

AL: I’m interested to see who Mikel Arteta selects for Sunday’s match. It’s the first opportunity he’s had with all of his first-choice players from last season fit and available for selection alongside the summer additions (minus Jurrien Timber). I think he’ll go with the following:

Ramsdale; Zinchenko, Gabriel, Saliba, White; Rice, Havertz, Ødegaard; Martinelli, Jesus, Saka

The biggest absence from that starting lineup is Thomas Partey, who will be out for a few weeks with a muscle injury. The Ghanaian started the season as an inverting right back because of the injuries to Timber and Zinchenko. Arteta wanted a fullback who could step into midfield, and with those two out, Partey was the next logical option, with Arteta seemingly set on that tactical setup. But that change created ripples throughout the formation - Ben White was pushed to RCB, William Saliba to LCB, Gabriel Magalhaes dropped to the bench, and either Jakub Kiwior or Takehiro Tomiyasu at LB. There may have been something else going on with Gabriel behind the scenes, but Arteta said it was tactical and nothing more. Either way, that disrupted the right side of the attack, made Arsenal more vulnerable defensively, and the left side struggled for familiarity. So it might not be the worst thing in the world that Mikel Arteta is forced into not tinkering with the lineup as much. I think we’ll see a lineup much closer to last season’s preferred XI.

The player to watch out for is Gabriel Jesus. People seem to have forgotten how good he and Arsenal were before he got hurt at the World Cup. That’s probably in part because when he returned from his injury last season, he wasn’t fully fit/on form in the same way. He looked back to himself over the summer and in his brief cameo against Manchester United. He transforms the Arsenal attack when he’s at or close to his best.

RBM: Finally, what’s your prediction for Sunday’s game?

AL: Arsenal seem to have a knack for traveling to Goodison when Everton are up against it and need a result, and that’s no different this time around. Can y’all get your act together so that it isn’t a kitchen sink game when my club visits your ground?

I actually think that Everton are meaningfully better than the results have shown. The underlying numbers are fine; you’ve just struggled actually to put the ball in the back of the net. Arsenal have a knack for being generous to clubs struggling to score, so I think you’ll get one on Sunday. But I think Arsenal will get more than one. 2-1 to Arsenal.

Our thanks to Aaron for his time.