THE BLAME GAME: ARSENAL VS EVERTON 5/21
WHO CAN BE BLAMED FOR SOME OF ARSENAL’S SHORTCOMING’S THIS SEASON?
SETUP: Arsenal pulled off a 3–1 victory over Everton even after going down to 10 men in the 14th minute. Arsenal have improved after a recent formational change by their manager on the hot seat, Arsene Wenger. However, some flaws were exposed in this game that highlight why Arsenal is not going to be in the Champions League net after 20 consecutive years.
In the backdrop of Arsenal’s final Premier League match of the season, Arsene Wenger’s future continues to be uncertain due to the team’s success. After 20 consecutive years (yes, they have been in the Champions League since before I was even born) of Champions League football, they finished fifth.
Arsene is a figure critics are pointing at because three of the four teams that finished above Arsenal appointed new managers ahead of this season and experienced success. Thus, people have suggested that a switch up at Arsenal could mark the signs of future growth. We can’t just cut to the chase, though. Arsene has been in charge for over 20 years, and has given these Arsenal players the same instructions.
For whoever comes in, if there is someone who comes in this summer, it would be hard to overwrite something that has been so established at the club. Overwriting the script is an inevitability, regardless of when it happens. Some people may just be scared to face their fate.
Despite any gossip in and around the club, Arsenal defeated an Everton side that has progressed under new manager Ronald Koeman. They were to finish 7th regardless of the result of this weekend’s fixtures. This finish ensures the club qualified for the Europa League, and, coincidentally, the same tournament Arsenal qualified for with its 5th place finish. For Everton, this is their first European football since the 2014–2015 season.
Perhaps Arsenal’s 3–1 victory over a Europa League caliber team suggests that it can go on and win it all. But, after looking deeper into this game, don’t think too quickly.
The members of Arsenal’s team culpable for their downfalls include their defenders.
Flash to the 14th minute of the game. Arsenal settled in and dominated possession, controlling all areas of the pitch and leaving Everton locked inside their own half. In the 3–4–2–1, Arsenal could push numbers forward and remain balanced at the same time. All of their players, including the occasionally “invisible” attacking midfielder Mesut Ozil, made runs in and around the Everton attacking area.
In the 8th minute, a low cross was sent in by Mesut Ozil towards striker Danny Welbeck inside the six yard box. He whiffed the shot, but Arsenal Right-wing back Hector Bellerin cleaned up the mess, and the score was 1–0. If Arsenal could play like they did in the first 14 minutes for the full 90, the final score would have been 5–0 most likely.
Instead? Well, instead, in the 14th minutes, Everton right attacking midfielder Enner Valencia received the ball in his own half facing his goal. Left center back gave a nudge at his back while left-wing back Nacho Monreal was retreating from attack. Rob Holding then backed off Valencia, who could now turn, and Monreal faced up on Valencia. Enner Valencia used his speed to scoot past Monreal and burst forward. Valencia accelerated and passed Arsenal left center back Rob Holding as if he wasn’t there with a clever nutmeg.
That left Arsenal captain, Laurent Koscielny, in the central center back position, covering their left side of defense. Koscielny sprinted at full speed, closing in on Valencia. Valencia took a heavy touch into space with the nutmeg, and to win the ball, Koscielny put his hole body through and challenged with his left boot up.
After Valencia had got another touch on the ball.
Down goes Valencia. Out comes the red card. 14 minutes in. 1–0 up.
Now there’s a lot going on here. First, let’s take a look at Monreal and his position as a wing-back in this formation. As a wing-back with three center backs behind him, Monreal has the license to push further up the field to deliver crosses and press the opposing team. With all the chances going forward early into this game, and a goal, it was clear that offense was not the problem for Arsenal. Bellerin, their other wing-back, was tapping home a rebound near Everton’s six-yard box like a right winger.
While defense in numbers (not two, but three center backs) gives wing-backs a cushion, Monreal’s positioning and capability of stopping Valencia proved a big part in Everton’s attacking move. Monreal is a defender, and as a defender, his main job, above all, is to stop the ball, regardless of where he is.
Defensive duties. There’s one strike.
The left center back covering Monreal was Rob Holding. Holding started creeping forward towards the left sideline when Enner Valencia turned past Monreal. Holding’s approach to the ball, though, was poor. In fact, he was slowly shuffling, showing no purpose in stopping a player rushing towards him. Enner, without losing speed, managed to direct the ball through Holding’s legs. A rule for a defender to avoid getting nutmegged is to defend a player at an angle, and Holding should have shielded Valencia to the sideline where he could have used his strength to hold Valencia off.
Poor defending. You have one more strike there.
Now, your captain was forced to cover for these two players. As a captain, his job is to give instructions and covering effectively when called upon.
It doesn’t appear like Koscielny could do either of those things in this instance. Rob holding, as a center back, didn’t not need to go up the field to help press. The team is winning 1–0, and a Arsenal midfielder Granit Xhaka is in proximity tracking another Everton midfielder nearby. Koscielny should have sent Xhaka onto Valencia and called Holding back for cover.
Regardless, Valencia got through, and Koscielny was supposed to cover for them. He could have recognized he was not going to win the ball, or, to give the benefit of the doubt, he could have jockeyed Valencia while Monreal and Holding were sprinting back.
Instead, both his decision-making and adjustment were poor. You could see he was sprinting over to the ball from the moment Valencia nutmegged Holding. The only probable outcome was going to be a strong challenge, let alone a sliding one. And a red card was the outcome.
Decision-making. Strike three.
Going down to 10 men, the captain’s band was handed over to goalkeeper Petr Cech and the defense converted to a back four. With one less man, Bellerin and Monreal still moved forward. Right center back Gabriel covered for Bellerin. When Bellerin was upfield, Gabriel did well tackling outside the box. At one point, he used his speed to run toe-to-toe with Everton left attacking midfield Mirallas when a long ball made it way.
Gabriel, more or less, was left to defend for himself on the right side. Even though he produced some stellar solo tackles, when he tracked back to defend crosses, he struggled to meld with Rob Holding. In the 19th minute, Everton striker Romelu Lukaku was on the ball on the right and Rob holding was covering. Lukaku created space and managed to fizz a cross in between Gabriel and Petr Cech, looking for a young Everton midfielder, Tom Davies, nearing the six yard box. As a defender standing at the near post, nothing should be getting past you.
More bad luck and bad decisions funneled in the 49th minute. Gabriel was sliding to tackle Valencia once again, inside the opponent’s half, but his left leg was positioned awkwardly under his thigh when. After he followed through on both Valencia and the ball, he burst out in pain and you could tell something was not right. He was booked for the challenge while being carried off on a stretcher. That was something I did not think I would see in this game.
All these players are capable of producing marvelous work. Clearly, though, their decision-making, communication, and adjustments are not quite there. Arsenal does not have the mental intelligence to break into the top tier yet.
Next up: Europa League Final, Manchester United v Ajax 5/24