On Saturday, Arsenal go to Everton where, last season, it suffered a 3-0 defeat at Goodison Park. That perhaps wasn’t as eye-catching as the 6-0 reverse at Chelsea, or the 5-1 loss at Liverpool, or the 6-3 rout at Manchester City, but it felt in its own way just as damning, perhaps even more so. Arsenal losing to the top two or three sides, sometimes by wide margins, is something that has come almost to be expected; being outplayed by Everton isn’t.
Arsene Wenger seemed unable to adjust to Roberto Martinez’s rapidly vindicated decision to have Romelu Lukaku cutting in from the right and, at that moment, at the beginning of April no less. With Arsenal having taken just five points from its previous six games, it looked like Everton would take the fourth Champions League qualifying slot. As it was, Arsenal rallied to win its final five league games and lifted the FA Cup as well to redeem the season. The Toffees stuttered outside the final four.
That created a momentum that was maintained with the 3-0 victory over a supine Manchester City in the FA Community Shield, followed by the uneasy 2-1 win over manager-less Crystal Palace in the Premier League on Saturday and then the hard-fought 0-0 draw at Besiktas in Tuesday’s UEFA Champions League qualifier. But the sense of well-being is perhaps just beginning to fade. There have been positives in the past week — a draw at Besiktas is a perfectly acceptable result and it could have been even better had Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s late effort not been turned against a post — but some familiar doubts have also arisen.
"I’m looking at Arsenal with the experience and know-how they have and don’t think playing on Tuesday is going to affect them negatively," Everton boss Martinez told reporters this week. "If anything it could be a positive because you can get rid of that rustiness and can get you into a real competitive frame of mind straight away. We need to replicate the level of performance from when we faced them at Goodison last season."
Wenger has shifted from the 4-2-3-1 of last season to a 4-3-3. Mikel Arteta sits at the back of midfield, flanked by Jack Wilshere and Aaron Ramsey, with Alexis Sanchez wide to the right and Santi Cazorla on the left. In theory, that should be more secure, with Arteta given additional support but there were worrying signs of the old fragility against Besiktas. To make matters worse, Arteta suffered a badly sprained ankle against Besiktas, and will be out for at least two weeks, leaving Mathieu Flamini as the only fit holding player in the squad.
Perhaps even more troubling was Arsenal’s lack of discipline. Ramsey, of course, will feel aggrieved to have been sent off and, as Wenger said, both his yellow cards were for relatively trivial offenses. Ramsey had never been sent off before in his professional career so perhaps it’s unfair to single him out. Arsenal could surely see that Besiktas’s players were quick to go to ground, were playing for cards, and that Serbian referee Milorad Mazic was keen to show them.
To wrap an arm around an opponent’s waist and tug at the shirt, however slight the offense, was asking for trouble. Similarly, Flamini made a reckless charge towards the ball that created the possibility for a dive and a yellow card. It’s not condoning diving to say that Arsenal needed to be smarter, and that streetwiseness is a quality it has lacked for many years. That’s related, of course, to the inability to react to Lukaku’s surprising deployment at Goodison Park last year.
Arsenal’s other big concern is the form of Olivier Giroud. When Yaya Sanogo was chosen ahead of him for the game against Crystal Palace, the suspicion was that Wenger, who spoke of the dangers of fatigue before the first leg vs. Besiktas, had earmarked the Palace game as one in which Giroud could be rested. If that was Wenger’s thinking, he was vindicated; Arsenal wasn’t at anything like its fluent best and never really created much in the way of concerted pressure, but Palace errors at set-plays offered opportunities. Having seen Giroud in Istanbul, though, he just looks woefully out of touch. According to WhoScored.com, he had a passing accuracy of just 52%, while all three of his shots were off target.
Resolving whether Sanogo or Giroud — or Joel Campbell — plays is a matter of personnel. Wenger must also, though, work out what he will do if Martinez again moves Lukaku to the right touchline. Last season, the striker attacked the channel between Nacho Monreal and Thomas Vermaelen. This time around, Laurent Koscielny should be the left-sided centerback but Monreal is likely to play again after Kieran Gibbs went down with a muscular injury.
In a sense, this is the first real test of the slightly modified formation. In a 4-2-3-1, there is often a weakness in that space between the fullback, the winger and outside the holding players. Monreal, it should be said, wasn’t helped by Lukas Podolski’s lack of tracking. Cazorla may be more inclined to chase back, but also the three-man central midfield means whoever plays on the left — probably Wilshere — should be able to offer support.
That’s a specific, and it may be that Martinez decides not to repeat last season’s trick. The new shape should have a little more defensive resilience. Whether that is enough to overcome the ongoing lack of a clear ball-winner at the back of midfield is another matter. And then, as ever with Arsenal, there’s the matter of whether they have the wherewithal to adapt mid-game.
"First of all a team is life and life is movement," Wenger pointed out in his weekly press conference. "That means the team doesn’t stand still, we move forward and improve. We have young players, which means that every year they can be better. We have a good opportunity on Saturday to show that we have moved forward and that we are stronger than last year."