Everton can beat Arsenal this weekend - if they exploit glaring Gunners weakness from the first whistle
Everton face a tough test when they welcome Arsenal to Goodison Park in the Premier League - but do the visitors have a weak spot that Sean Dyche could exploit?
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On the face of it, the odds are stacked against Everton this weekend. Having won just one point from their opening four fixtures of the league season, they host an unbeaten Arsenal side at Goodison Park. To say that it’s a tough assignment would be an understatement.
Then again, it was in this precise fixture last season that Sean Dyche’s were able to bully Arsenal across the pitch on their way to a surprising 1-0 win. It may have ended up being a brief honeymoon period for Dyche before a tough slog down the home straight, but it made the point that this fixture may not be quite so one-sided as the points table suggests.
There’s also the underlying numbers which tell us that Everton really have been rather unlucky so far, and that they deserve more points than they’ve won so far. Cold comfort, perhaps, when a relegation battle looms, but it may be a little early for Evertonians to give up home of getting something from this game.
Of course, Arsenal are playing with a new system this season and what worked for Dyche last year may not be so successful this time around. Mikel Arteta has moved away from the classical double pivot in favour of a more fluid set-up with Declan Rice as the only deeper-lying midfielder and Kai Havertz and Martin Ødegaard pushing further upfield.
Rice is supported in his defensive duties by Arsenal encouraging their defenders to push up towards his position, both to provide passing options and to plug gaps in midfield if they lose possession, as well as to allow Rice the freedom to make the occasional foray forward. But there is some evidence that there’s a chink in Arsenal’s armour, and Everton could make life easier for themselves if they try to exploit it.
The problem in question is the amount of space that’s on offer down Arsenal’s right flank. It’s the exploitation of that space that allowed Marcus Rashford the freedom to dash onto Christian Eriksen’s through ball and open the scoring in the game against Manchester United, and seven of United’s 10 attempts on goal came from the left flank. A majority of Crystal Palace and Nottingham Forest’s chances against the Gunners have come from the same side of the field, too.
The issue may stem from a positioning issue with the midfield. Rice, who played on the left side of a double pivot while at West Ham United, has a bias towards the left side of the field which shows up in his heat maps and touch charts – and the result is that he often leaves the left flank well-defended but the right relatively open. It’s an issue compounded by Martin Ødegaard, the only Arsenal midfielder who spends the majority of his games on the right side of the field, having an extremely high average position – he doesn’t get back to cover gaps downfield very often at all.
Exacerbating the problem is the fact that the right-back and centre-back that started against United, Ben White and William Saliba, don’t seem to have a great understanding with each other when it comes to positioning. For Rashford’s goal, they came close together and stood off too far. When Anthony Martial had a good chance after being played through the channel between the two, they were stood too far apart.
Of course, one possible gap in their defences doesn’t make Arsenal too much less formidable. They were also the best team in the division at defending corners and crossed free-kicks last season, which is usually a major area of opportunity for Everton. And their possession stats have been improved substantially since they adjusted their system – maybe there is a vulnerability down their right side, but the earn so much possession now that it may be a fair trade-off anyway.
But if Everton want to stun the Gunners once more, they could do a lot worse than focus their play down the left side and test Arsenal out with some quick counter-attacks. With a little bit more luck than they’ve had so far, they could just profit from it - and heaven knows they’re due a little bit of luck...