The Gunners battled back from a controversial goal, and exploited two defensive assignment miscues to scrape out a 2-1 victory against visiting Everton.
ARSENAL START FORM: In the absence of injured winger Samir Nasri, Arsene Wenger gave Tomas Rosicky a rare start on the left wing. Aside from that change, he ran out the 4-2-3-1 lineup he has favored in recent weeks.
EVERTON START FORM: The Toffees came out in a single-striker formation (Louis Saha). What was noticeable in this formation was that one of the central midfielders, typically Jack Rodwell, stepped forward to team with Saha to provide pressure on Arsenal’s center backs. This gave the formation a 4-4-1-1 feel, but without the attacking midfielder being particularly attack-minded. In fact, Rodwell would drop back on attack and allow Mikel Arteta and Marouane Fellaini provide the offensive support from deep.
ARSENAL’S RIGHT-FLANK ATTACK: Both teams were effective throughout the first thirty minutes getting the ball forward. The difference for Everton was that the left side of their defense, mainly Fellaini, Sylvain Distin, and Leighton Baines, were strong and prevented Cesc Fabregas, Theo Walcott, and Robin van Persie enough room to carry out their short passing game. Arsenal preferred a right flank attack, presumably because Baines is very keen to provide width in tandem with Diniyar Bilyetdinov. This was accentuated by Bilyetdinov’s defensive task of pressuring Bacary Sagna; this left room for Walcott or Sagna to receive and work on Baines. One other reason was the inclusion of Rosicky, who has struggled to regain his form of recent.
EVERTON FINDS ROOM AND TALLIES: As Arsenal was able to push forward, especially with defensive midfielder Jack Wilshere joining the rush forward, Everton’s central midfielders found themselves with gobs of room. Arteta and Fellaini made several memorable runs throughout the early part of the game. One such run in the 23rd minute resulted in a golden opportunity, as Fellaini fed Neville for a cross from the right flank. His cross found Bilyetdinov, but the Russian could not pull the trigger. A minute later, right midfielder Seamus Coleman floated a through pass from midfield for Saha, who was clearly offside. The pass flew over Laurent Koscielny’s shoulder, and he tried to trap it with his left foot. Instead, he deflected it on to Saha, who drilled a shot past Wojciech Szczesny. Despite the protests from Wenger and the captain Fabregas, referee Lee Mason allowed the goal, 0-1.
HALFTIME CHANGES: Defensive midfielder Alex Song picked up a minor injury for Arsenal, so he was subbed at the half for Abou Diaby. The only other noticeable change was that Rodwell was dropped deeper. This was likely to better control Fabregas and van Persie, who drops into midfield as a false nine. Arteta stepped forward, but wasn’t nearly as vigilant in pressuring Koscielny and Johan Djourou.
WENGER CHANGES FOR THE POSITIVE: Between the 60th and 70th minutes, Arsenal made two changes which completely changed the complexion of the game. First off was Tomas Rosicky, who worked hard but still lacked the feel of the ball creatively. He was replaced by Russian international Andrei Arshavin. In the 69th minute, Wenger brought on center forward Nicklas Bendtner in lieu of Wilshere. While the general 4-2-3-1 shape remained, van Persie moved into the center attack role, and Fabregas became the primary holding midfielder.
POOR COVERAGE DOOMS EVERTON: Even up to that point, Arsenal was carrying the play, and Everton was clearly content to stack defensively. But the final change paid off immediately. In the 70th minute, Arshavin cut across the formation and darted into the channel between Distin and Baines. It left Rodwell with the assignment to cover him. Rodwell’s reaction was delated, and he was unable to head away the Fabregas floater. The ball dropped perfectly for an Arshavin volley and the equalizer. Five minutes later, another breakdown caused by concern for Bendtner cost Everton the game. On a corner set piece, van Persie delivered a perfect cross into the 6 yard box. Both John Heitinga and Seamus Coleman clung to Bendtner, and failed to see Koscielny approach from the spot. The unmarked back headed the ball to glory, and Arsenal secured the three home points.
END GAME: The only other formational adjustments for Arsenal came from Arshavin and Bendtner switching positions after the go-ahead tally. This presumably gave Arsenal some size both in midfield and in retreat to withstand Everton’s last ditch effort. The Toffees brought on Phil Jagielka and Victor Anichebe late in the game, but neither player was able to add much sting to the final barrage.
FINAL THOUGHTS: This was a match that had an air of doom for Arsenal, even into the 2nd half. It was a great match, from tactical maneuvers to vitriol between the players. You could tell both teams wanted the three points, but in an interesting twist, the Gunners were the beneficiaries of the defensive lapse. It is unsurprising to see Wenger make a positive change, but without Nasri the team had looked punchless early on. I’m not sure it was particularly creative to put Bendtner up top, but in the end it created enough confusion to obtain the desired result. It will be interesting to see if the Gunners have similar problems going forward without Nasri for a few matches.