Everton came from behind to deny Arsenal the opportunity to extend their lead at the top of the Barclays Premier League to seven points.
Arsene Wenger made four changes to the side that defeated Hull City midweek by recalling Aaron Ramsey, Olivier Giroud, Kieran Gibbs and Mikel Arteta to the starting lineup.
Roberto Martinez fielded the same starting eleven that defeated Manchester United at Old Trafford in midweek action.
Everton produced another impressive away performance, but was unable to snatch maximum points at the Emirates Stadium.
One of the few shocking feats in this match was Everton’s dominance in possession. Everton pressed Arsenal high, preventing the Gunners from building play out of the back, which disrupted the home sides approach.
But Arsenal did the opposite – they dropped back into two banks of four and their press was at a minimal. This allowed Martinez’s men more freedom to play passes in Arsenal’s third, but also comfortably build play out of their half. Arsenal were pegged into their own half due to Everton’s pressure, and their fullbacks constantly looked to bomb forward, as Arsenal’s wide men lacked the pace to trouble them on the counter.
The only issue Everton faced was producing a final ball – for all of Ross Barkley’s threat in the final third, his decision making and capability of playing a defence splitting pass isn’t strong. Lukaku was starved for service as he aimed to make runs behind the Arsenal backline, but Martinez’s men didn’t attempt to squeeze a pass through.
There was a brief spell in the match when Wenger instructed Ramsey to push forward alongside Ozil to prevent his side from dropping deeper. In theory this was logical, but it was a huge risk as it left Arteta vulnerable against Everton counter-attacks.
The one issue with an Arteta-Ramsey double pivot has been Ramsey’s persistence to push forward into the final third. Although, the Gunners could get away with this against inferior opposition – or when Flamini is playing – Arteta has been exposed this season against the likes of Crystal Palace, Aston Villa and Liverpool on the break.
Everton’s lack of quality in the final third was beneficial to Wenger’s men, and the Frenchman quickly reverted to a 4-2-3-1, with Ramsey sitting deeper. Ramsey’s offensive contribution has been a positive this season, but it does leave Arteta with more defensive work to complete, ultimately making him a liability on the break.
Once again, Barkley produced another phenomenal performance at the Emirates – more importantly, it was in front of Roy Hodgson, as the Everton attacker is in contention for a spot in the England squad headed to the World Cup in June.
Barkley was a constant nuisance for the Arsenal midfield, mainly Mikel Arteta, who was once again exposed against a pacy, technically gifted midfielder. Barkley dropped into pockets of space throughout the final third and in deep positions in midfield to help Everton push forward, and break past Arsenal’s bank of four.
But, while Barkley’s positional intelligence was showcased, the Englishman posed a legitimate threat on the break. There were four distinct scenarios where Barkley carved open the Arsenal midfield, but was unable to convert his brilliance into goals.
- 4th min: Gareth Barry played a pass to Lukaku, and he squared the ball to Barkley who was behind Arteta. Barkley ran at the Arsenal defence and played a pass to Mirallas, but his ball flew across the six-yard box.
- 5th min: Barkley dispossessed Aaron Ramsey, then nicked the ball past Santi Cazorla, and drove at the Arsenal backline before playing a ball into Romelu Lukaku, who failed to get past Per Mertesacker.
- 21st min: Kieran Gibbs’ cross was cleared by Bryan Oviedo and Barkley turned and drifted past Arteta, subsequently playing a pass to Mirallas, who drove forward and struck his shot wide.
- 25th min: Sylvain Distin played a ball to Barkley who dropped deep, and turned past Arteta, playing a pass to Lukaku who laid it off for the Englishman. Barkley surged past Arteta, Giroud and Koscielny, but his final ball was poor.
Barkley was terrific, and he displayed his brilliance during the buildup to Everton’s equalizer when he turned Mathieu Flamini, and easily skipped past Arteta before playing the ball to Oviedo on the left flank.
Barkley’s pace, strength, positional awareness and trickery are remarkable, but is inability to play a final defence-splitting ball kept Arsenal in the match.
Arsenal vs. Howard
Arsenal struggled to grow into the match during the first half, and that was down to their lack of pressure, sloppiness in possession, and Everton’s work rate with and without the ball. While the Gunners did receive chances on the break to pose a threat, their wide men were pegged back to deep, and they lacked the pace required to catch Martinez’s men out of shape.
Arsenal’s best chances – besides Cazorla’s lovely ball across the six-yard box – came in the final four minutes of the half, when their nifty attacking players combined around the edge of the box.
- 41st min: Arteta pushed forward and played a pass to Wilshere, who steered the ball into the path of Olivier Giroud, but Howard was quick off his line to make the save – however, Giroud was offside.
- 42nd min: Ozil played a quick pass to Ramsey and he played in Giroud, but once again Howard was quick off his line to make a save.
- 44th min: Ozil played a pass towards Giroud, which Ramsey dummied and subsequently made a run to receive the pass from Giroud, but Howard denied the Frenchman from six-yards out.
Arsenal was at their best when they combined in the final third, but Howard’s positioning and quick instinct prevented the Gunners from taking the lead.
Everton down the left
Everton is known for their constant play down the left flank, and although Leighton Baines was unavailable, Oviedo has provided adequate cover for the Toffees.
Pienaar constantly drifted infield, finding pockets of space to receive the ball, which allowed Oviedo to push forward. Early on, neither Ozil nor Wilshere were tracking the Costa Rican fullback’s runs, and he delivered crosses into the box, but Mertesacker and Arteta comfortably dealt with that threat. In the 66th minute, both men combined well, leading to Pienaar’s cutback to Barkley, but Wojciech Szczesny saved his shot.
Although Pienaar didn’t participate for the entire match, Everton still posed a threat down the left flank. Barry made a clever overlapping run in the 83rd minute that allowed Oviedo to deliver a cross into the box, which resulted in Gerard Deulofeu’s equalizing goal.
The left flank was Everton’s preferred area on the field to attack, and there was no surprise that the ball was circulated through the left during the buildup to their equalizer.
Martinez predicted pre-match that substitutions would play a pivotal role in the fixture, and he was right. Wenger made a triple-substitution introducing Theo Walcott, Tomas Rosicky and Flamini for Ozil, Cazorla and Ramsey. It was uncertain as to whether this was a fitness concern or if Wenger was searching for a direct approach.
Walcott provides pace on the break, Rosicky drives forward and is capable of playing long precise diagonal balls or short incisive passes, whereas Flamini was expected to provide more defensive cover in midfield – which he didn’t. It was fitting to see Wenger’s subs involved in Arsenal’s opener, as Rosicky’s long diagonal ball found Walcott in the box, which he nodded across goal, and Ozil smashed the ball into the roof of the net.
Martinez introduced Leon Osman for Pienaar, which pushed Barkley to the left – apart from the buildup to the equalizer, it limited Barkley’s impact during the final 10 minutes of the match. The Everton manager also made a player swap introducing Deulofeu for Mirallas, who displayed a moment of brilliance, firing an unstoppable shot past Szczesny.
The substitutions by both managers didn’t alter the match tactically, but it gave both sides a different element of attack, thus providing two goals in the final 11 minutes.
It was an impressive away performance from Everton – they dictated possession for large portions of the match, got into better positions, and nullified Arsenal’s main strengths.
“The only bit of criticism is you need to take your chances, in the final third we were not ruthless enough,” Martinez told Sky Sports.
For what it’s worth, Arsenal once again displayed the progress they’ve made as unit, defensively. Mertesacker and Koscielny continue to impress, and displayed why they’re currently the best centreback duo in the league.
Arsenal lacked pace on the counter attack, and due to Everton’s shape and pressure, the home side was unable to get into their preferred passing rhythm around the final third. More so, the Gunners possess a difficult December schedule, and it’ll be interesting to see how Wenger utilizes the personnel at his disposal, as it certainly affected his approach and substitutions against Everton.