By Naveen Maliakkal
Everton will likely continue with a version of 4-2-3-1 they have played for most of this season, though Roberto Martinez has gone to a 4-3-1-2 against Arsenal. What is unknown, going into Sunday’s match, is how Martinez’s side will go about the game. Under the Spaniard, Everton have sought greater control of space through possession than they did with David Moyes. However, this season, such an approach has not proven as effective as it did last season.
Some of this may come down to aging players at key positions. Gareth Barry, Sylvain Distin, and Phil Jagielka all seem to have age catch up with them. In addition to the aging of some key players, Everton have yet to turn their possession into domination of the center of the pitch. They still rely on moving the play to wide areas. However, the pair of Steven Pienaar and Leighton Baines on the left, and Kevin Mirallas and Seamus Coleman on the right, have played less this season than they did last season. These combinations played a key role in Everton’s potency in possession. However, without these pairings, Everton have struggled to have the necessary quality they need to make their possession strategy, relying on playing in wide areas, effective. This has helped lead to Everton taking 52% of their shots, in EPL matches, from outside of the box.
This lack of familiarity and the aging of key players, may have contributed to a drop in the performances of other key contributors. The quality of Tim Howard’s performance has precipitously dropped, and this may have to do with the aging of two of Everton’s center backs and one of their holding midfielders, in addition to the error-prone nature of Mohammed Besic’s play. It may be that this lower quality and familiarity has driven Howard’s desire to come out of his comfort zone as Paul Riley’s excellent work shows.1
However, most concerning for Everton, is the lack of development Romelu Lukaku has shown. While their purchase of the Belgian was probably the right move2, the value of that transaction depended on Lukaku’s progression as a player. Specifically, Lukaku needed to show progression from just being a physically/athletically imposing player, to one who could provide more value with his technical ability, and more importantly with his mental understanding of the game. Given his lack of progression and Everton’s general desire to play a possession-based game, his current ability to produce value seems reliant his opportunities to exert his physical dominance, such as aerial duels and long distance runs. Given the limitations of Lukaku, it would not shock anyone if Everton looked to sit back, attempt to control pressure, in an effort to increase Lukaku’s ability to produce value, solely with his physical gifts.
Cut Them in Two
If Everton do decide to go with a 4-2-3-1 with two holding players, Arsenal should look to exploit the inherent problem of the potential lack of connection between the midfield and the trio behind Lukaku. If Arsenal wish to control possession or Everton wish to concede possession, then these are the spaces that Arsenal need to control with their counter-pressing (yes, hoping Arsenal effectively counter-press anyone is rather fanciful). With Everton lacking the technical ability to play in tight spaces, in addition to a lack of ball-carriers to individually break the press, a possession-based game, along with a counter-press preventing Everton from getting the ball into the front three would allow Arsenal to force the game to stay in Everton’s half3.
Even if Everton want to control possession or Arsenal wish to cede possession (take away Everton’s ability to play in space) a similar approach works, just in a different area of the pitch. With a compact midfield quartet, and the first line of defense dropping into the midfield zone, Arsenal can create a numerical advantage in the center of the pitch. However, such an approach requires an understanding of how to allocate resources to deal with dynamic threats. This means that when Arsenal apply pressure to Everton’s holders, they must not allow them a cheap way out of the pressure4. For example, passing lanes, particularly to the fullbacks, need to be shut down. This means that pressing must occur when it is most opportune, when the passing lanes can be easily shut down, thus allowing pressure to be applied with greater success. Yes, another fanciful hope about Arsenal’s ability to and willingness to rely on defending as a unit, rather than relying on defending in a bunch of individual matchups.
Problems in Possession
When looking at the approach of controlling space with the ball, one should question whether Arsenal have the ability to do so. Obviously, having Francis Coquelin instead of Mikel Arteta hurts Arsenal’s ability to control possession. While Arteta’s superior passing ability helps, it is his superior understanding of how to position himself, compared to Coquelin, which allows him to provide more value to Arsenal possession play. Arteta does a better job of creating a spare man. This spare man could be him, making him an option to the player on the ball. Moving into the back line to create a situational back-three, in the face of a defensive front two is an example of this. The spare man could be another player. In this case, Arteta’s movement and positioning work to draw the attention of defenders, giving Arsenal a numerical advantage elsewhere on the pitch, into which the man on the ball can pass. With Coquelin’s poorer understanding of on-pitch resource allocation, Arsenal have less of an ability to create that spare man.
In addition to the lack of a holding midfielder who can assist their positional play, like Mikel Arteta, Arsenal’s desire for verticality in their build-up play hurts their ability to effectively control possession. Instead of flooding the area around the ball, looking to maximize the number and proximity of options available to the man in possession, Arsenal tend to look to stretch the pitch vertically. When it comes off, Arsenal can more quickly move the ball into the final third. If their touches and passes are completely on point, then they can quickly bypass a pressing opponent, move the ball into the final third, and look to create chances against fewer and less organized defenders. Yet, when the touches and the passes decrease in quality, the lack of support for the man on the ball can lead to problems. Players often become isolated and if they cannot escape their defender, there is a high risk that they lose the ball. With a lack of options available to the man on the ball, even slightly errant passes can turn into catalysts for counter-attacks.
What Do Arsenal Do Well?
Going back to a look at Arsenal earlier in the season, there was an optimism, particularly earlier in the season, that Arsenal had moved out of the post-Cesc era, into one with a clear philosophy of play. However, as the season has gone on, Arsenal have opted to be strategically flexible to the point that it is difficult to determine what they ultimately want to be. They are not the masters of attacking transitions and athleticism that the 98-04 Arsenal sides were. They were not the potent possessors of the football that the Cesc-era Arsenal sides were. If anything, they seem headed down a path where they become a jack-of-all-trades, but a master of none.
Arsenal do not have a resource advantage over the competition in Europe or in England, so it seems unlikely that a chameleon type of approach to maximize performance in both competitions, like Sir Alex Ferguson’s best sides during the last few years of Ronaldo’s time at United, will allow Arsenal to achieve any meaningful success at home or abroad. Unless Arsenal wish to remain as a side whose ceiling is a Top 4 finish and a R16/QF exit in the Champions League, this strategic flexibility probably needs to stop.
They need to adopt a playing style and stick to it. Whether that involves relying on controlling space with possession, ceding possession to control space out of possession, counter-pressing, etc. there needs to be conviction in the manner in which Arsenal approach matches. By having a strategic identity, the team can finally develop a style of play, as more resources can be allocated to the development of such a style. Such strategic stability helps to promote tactical flexibility, as such familiarity with the playing style allows for greater revelation and understanding of how to achieve the same strategic goals in different environments. By having a complete understanding the playing philosophy, it becomes easier to figure out how to deal with the opponent’s strengths and weaknesses, the weather, the fitness of your players, etc. By having a dogmatism to their playing style, they can actually master a playing style, and achieve a standard of quality that allows them to sustainably challenge for the two trophies that matter.
Therefore, for Arsenal to achieve anything worth achieving, they need to figure out what they want to be. Otherwise, it seems likely that every season we will talk about Arsenal’s place in the Top 4 race and another exit, early in the knockout rounds of the Champions League.
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1. [As his look at Manuel Neuer shows, the piece does not criticize the role of the sweeper keeper, but instead seems to show that much harder it is to operate as a sweeper keeper. The expansion of the options available to such a keeper, along with the greater responsibility, requires greater mental capacity, technical ability, and physical ability to pull it off. So the failures/problems of many keepers attempting to play the role should not lead to a damnation of the style, but an investigation into the reasons for the lack of quality to play in such a manner1]↩
2. Those who think signing Lukaku did not make sense, probably mistakenly think that NBA players like Draymond Green and Jimmy Butler are not worth the max contract they probably should get this summer, regardless of the team for which they sign.]↩
3. [If Everton look to play on the counter, fielding Ross Barkley ahead of the two holders, tight enough to receive the ball and drive forward, could be Martinez’s way to deal with the potential pressure Arsenal exert, during their attacking transitions.]↩
4. [I will assume that an approach depending on controlling space out of possession will actually seek to control space, which requires, at some point the application of pressure before the ball moves into areas that are too dangerous to potentially concede control of. “Soaking up pressure”, as Arsenal are wont to do, is often an approach that lacks control, instead relying on positive random variation to go Arsenal’s way.]↩