A big one at Goodison Park
Behold, a haphazard opposition analysis and tactical preview of a physical matchup at Everton
Hello, all. I’ve been researching some longer-form pieces this week, but in the meantime, wanted to share some of my assorted notes in advance of this one. I typed this out quickly, and will not be accepting feedback at this time. Enjoy!
A trip to Goodison Park is always going to trigger some … feelings. Arsenal are winless in their last five trips, which includes a memorable, frustrating 1-0 loss last time out — in Sean Dyche’s first game at the helm.
That was the first victory across 11 games in all competitions for the Toffees. It felt meaningful for Arsenal as well, even at the time, as it was only the second league loss of the year, and shone a light on a few weaknesses that would recur during the remainder of the campaign.
It is, alas, a new season. With four games under their respective belts, the two squads are again on diverging paths: Arsenal are undefeated (3-1-0) while Everton are winless (0-1-3), while both have faced a fairly comfortable slate of opponents.
Still, both sides have flashed something similar: the raw potential for more production than they have actually notched so far.
Familiar early-season questions percolate. Chief among them: what is signal, and what is noise?
We’ll learn more on Sunday.
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Dyche’s comments on the team’s transfer business carry a wistful tone:
“We were hoping to do more in the market but, obviously, we all know about the situation in the market, how we are trying to construct deals. We didn’t get what we want. Alex Iwobi left us, which is a shame because he is a top player.”
Here, we can review their transfer business courtesy of transfermarkt. I’ve outlined the players who are likely to play more significant roles in the proceedings on Sunday:
The striker situation is improved: out with the Maupay and in with the Beto, who has looked pretty propulsive thus far and will compete with Dominic Calvert-Lewin for minutes. The latter seems to be ready to make his inevitable return from injury against Arsenal, though it’s unclear whether that’ll be in a bench capacity or not.
Iwobi, indeed, leaves a big creative void (often through the middle-right against Arsenal), and likely makes the doubling of Martinelli out wide less of a frightening proposition. Gray is gone, and unavailable to provide a late screamer. The team is without a natural right-winger, but have options there. Newly-signed Jack Harrison is still returning to fitness, so the most likely starters on Sunday are probably Dwight McNeil or James Garner, I think (?).
Ashley Young fills the veteran void in the backline with Conor Coady gone and Seamus Coleman working his way back from injury. Young has largely been starting over Vitaliy Mykolenko, who has generally been up-and-down but can fare well against Saka.
The talented 21-year-old Nathan Patterson will likely start at right-back against Martinelli in their first matchup outside of friendlies. At LCB, it’ll either be Jarrad Branthwaite (another 21-year-old who looked pretty good against Arsenal last year while on loan at PSV), or Michael Keane.
To date, Everton have had a pretty easy run-in, but no results to show for it:
Fulham (h): 1-0 loss
Aston Villa (a): 4-0 loss
Wolves (h): 1-0 loss
Sheffield United (a): 2-2 draw
As such, the games have been much more open and free-wheeling than you may expect from a Dyche side. They have the 9th-highest intensity press in the league, as measured by PPDA (passes per defensive action), and have been more of a mid-block than a pure low-block.
As expected, their passing sequences have been short and mostly direct:
They’ve had a linear style of play so far. In-possession, they barely dribble — they pass long, direct, opportunistic, and low-percentage. They are firing out long-balls at the highest rate in the league — with 84.3 of them per 90, and also pound in a ton of crosses, with 23.8 per 90. Pickford sweeps long (third-highest length of defensive action) and boots it long (with a 50.5% launch percentage).
All of this has resulted in a lot of shots but only two goals. They are underperforming their xG more than any other side in the Premier League this season, and have the fifth-most shots in the league. While they’ve looked a bit more active and dynamic, some of that is down to game-state and opponent, some of it is down to developing associations between new attackers, and some of the “underperformance” is down to unfortunate luck and biffed chances by the likes of Maupay.
When adjusted for strength of schedule, though, they are still in a lower tier:
Does that fill you with any hope of an easy ride?
For one, Dyche has been given extra time to prepare. For another, that sicko is probably relishing his first opportunity in the season to finally, at last, go Full Dyche.
Out-of-possession, we know what to expect, barring a surprise: it is likely to be a 4-5-1, with wide midfielders doubling the wingers, incredible discipline and size through the middle, and low direct intervention with dribblers.
Here’s how that looked last year:
They are probably going to sit back and look to frustrate Arsenal’s desire to yank them around. Upon winning possession, many of their long-balls will be immediate and relatively aimless — effortlessly scooped up by the likes of Saliba and Ramsdale, before being turned the other way. But they’ll hope that a few will cause a lot more mayhem than that. Beto and Danjuma are both skilled and dangerous, if not fully clicking yet.
A schematic vulnerability in Arsenal’s shape (the spot behind the inverted full-back — in this case, Zinchenko) isn’t a particular strength of Everton. But much will nonetheless depend on the calmness of White, Saliba, and Gabriel in dispatching those few but nervy transition opportunities. Avoiding sloppy losses in the midfield will be key.
In build-up, Arsenal are unlikely to find any joy when going long, as Everton will be giant and backward-leaning. So I’d expect a lot of short balls from Ramsdale directly to Saliba, Zinchenko, and Rice, who will then carry it up and dictate play.
Next, I went back and watched all of the chances created against Everton in the season thus far — I have a vibrant and active social life, thank you for asking — as well as the opportunities Arsenal generated when facing the Dyche-led side twice last year. Here’s what I found.
The high flanks offer the clearest area of opportunity for Arsenal. I kept notes on 30 different open-play chances generated in relevant game-states. 20 of them occurred through the right, with 2 kicking off in the middle, and 8 from the left. This makes sense, as the midfield trio of Onana, Doucouré, and Gueye are ever-present and imposing.
One of the first things I’ll be checking out in the pre-game lineups is the choice at left-back for Dyche. Mykolenko offers a younger, more physical and fouly approach against Saka. It’s imprecise but he generally holds up OK in direct duels.
Ashley Young has been the preferred option thus far, and though he offers more maturity to a line in need of it, his 38-year-old legs can fail him when needing to change direction quickly. He still offers some impressive qualities, but let’s face it: he scored on his debut 20 years ago, and from an Arsenal point of view, I’d personally like to see him out there against Saka.
Here, a Sheffield United switch spins him around, and he basically falls down:
Here, he tried to stick with Bailey, but as soon as he put a leg in, he lost the ability to stop his cross. Goal:
…and here, he gets caught flat-flooted on a cross that Diaby pounds in:
This offers a pretty clear mismatch to exploit.
When switching play, the velocity was an enormous difference in the 1-0 loss at Goodison and the 4-0 victory at the Emirates. The volume was a difference as well: Arsenal completed 275 lateral passes in the victory, compared to 220 in the loss.
Hello, Declan Rice.
Premier League blocks are rapid at moving back and forth, so it’s not just about completing the switches, it’s about grasping the opportunities immediately.
Though he offered the reinforcement of size, these were the games where I actually found myself most frustrated with Xhaka last year. Why? After switches, he wouldn’t drive towards defenders on the carry, which creates space for others (Eze offered great example against us a few weeks back). Defenders wouldn’t push up, and he’d usually dink it away:
Assuming he starts, my challenge for Havertz — and who the fuck am I to offer a challenge? — would be to log a few moments where he turns and drives immediately, as he did in the almost-penalty against United. If nothing else, you take somebody out of the play.
Another reason the second leg proved more successful was because both Martinelli and Saka weren’t content to be isolated as touchline wingers. In the first go, Everton was able to form a veritable wall between the wingers and the rest of play, isolating their ability to associate and generate threat.
Trossard was introduced in the second leg, which helped, but Martinelli in particular made a clear effort to do whatever he wanted. This is the precise difference between a more forgettable Martinelli performance and a top-class one:
In the win, the first goal was generated by Martinelli dribbling through the middle, swinging out the right-wing, Zinchenko floating wide, and Saka sneaking through the half-space. Onana was visibly frustrated with the amount of covering he had to do for his teammates. This sensory overload is how you unstick a stubborn block:
This dribbling and dragging pays dividends, and helped offset the void of Gabriel Jesus — who, lest we forget, is a tight-space killer who has still never faced Dyche as an Arsenal player.
I understand the urge to start Fábio Vieira, and don’t think size always has to be countered with size; look at Bernardo Silva’s exploits in the Champions League for proof that going the other route can be effective, too. I hope he gets minutes in any case.
But the first reason to start Havertz is this. These wide overloads (like we saw above on the Saka goal) can be great at dragging the big CB’s out in space, and both left-backs can get caught out on them — Mykolenko for late recognition, and Young for age. On top of that, Nathan Patterson can have difficulty tracking runners at the far post. I would have Saka and Ødegaard pounding in a lot of crosses to Havertz:
Similarly, Everton defenders can gravitate towards the goal, which leaves some pockets for late runners to find after crosses:
Ødegaard has been big on The Shooting and low on The Passing so far this year. I can come up with a nonsensical galaxy-brain explanation for this: by putting a lot of long blasts on tape early in the season, defenders will be forced to challenge these shots, which should open up space in the box throughout the season.
But the reason is probably more straightforward: he’s scored a lot, and is feeling himself.
I’m happy to be proven wrong with a long banger, but I’d much prefer for Ødegaard to be his best playmaking self in this one. Another contrast between the performances last year was the quality of shot: Arsenal scored one and scored four on the same amount of shots (14). The difference was the distance: their average shot was 5 yards closer in the 4-0 win.
But there is another, more obvious, reason to play Havertz: this game has a high likelihood of hinging on set pieces. With new signings in tow, Arteta is gearing up for a new kind of fight:
Sometimes we cannot avoid a battle. There are certain balls that you have to prove and they have a certain style of play that they are extremely good at. We have a very different one and when you are trying to impose your way of playing it is about trying to make sure your opponents’ strengths are completely hiding and yours are coming out every time to fulfill your time.
This is the biggest lineup Arsenal is fielding in 20 years:
The end result of the beefing-up process, which accelerated dramatically this summer with the arrivals of Declan Rice and Kai Havertz, is that Arsenal’s expected lineup at Goodison Park will have an average height of 1.84 metres. Not since the 2003/04 campaign, when the likes of Sol Campbell, Patrick Vieira and Thierry Henry dominated their opponents so completely, have Arsenal boasted such size in their lineup for a trip to Everton.
Set pieces will loom large. Many of Arsenal’s goals this year are the result of direct set plays (i.e., Rice scoring on a corner) or in the chaotic sequences afterwards. Arsenal currently lead in corner kicks per 90 (with 9 per game), and Everton is fourth — along the way, they’ve generated the second-most set piece shots in the league (with 23), and the second-most set piece xG (with 2.27, worth more goals than they’ve scored total). There are dragons in those waters.
Still, Everton have not been impervious on defensive set pieces. Even with all 11 Everton players in the box, Egan was left unmarked here — just as Rice was against Manchester United. I saw this a couple times against Sheffield United:
I’d, honestly, expect that to be cleaned up for Sunday. But Arsenal should nonetheless feel free to generate as many corners as possible and see what happens.
They should also, as always, keep up the immediate pressure up in any situation when the block isn’t fully settled. That includes the post-corner phases, of course, but it goes for quick throw-ins too. This was a goal for Bailey:
As a corollary to the conversation around physicality, the “distance covered” rankings can often be littered with more undertalented try-hards. In the increasingly big-and-physical Premier League, though, it’s now filled with many of the best players in the league:
With their new additions, Arsenal will look to go toe-to-toe with a “big” rival — seeking to meet them on size and athleticism, and beat them with talent.
It’s a big test, in more ways than one.
To recap, here are some final thoughts:
While Everton have performed better than their results suggest, their transfer window (namely, Iwobi out) didn’t necessarily improve their chances against this Arsenal side; with our additions, at least on paper, Arsenal should match up better.
Arsenal should actively “un-stick” the wingers and let them rotate freely. In the process, Zinchenko can feel free to be his most expansive self. An early goal would do wonders to spreading out their block.
My preferred method for goals would probably be wide-right triangles/diamonds and crosses to the far-left post.
Unexpected players should pick their spots join the front to unsettle the block (Rice, Gabriel, Zinchenko — in addition to White).
There probably won’t be many chances, but if they offer themselves, Arsenal should press the fuck out of the CB’s.
There is an off-chance that they actually press a bit in a neutral state. If so, I’d look to play through them on the ground (rather than going long).
I’d go with the expected lineup: Ramsdale/White/Saliba/Gabriel/Zinchenko/Rice/Havertz/Ødegaard/Saka/Martinelli/Jesus. The only surprising idea I’d consider for five minutes (before discarding) is Trossard in at left-wing. If he were to start there, his touchline winger shortcomings would be dulled, his tight box-dribbling and crossing would shine, and he wouldn’t impact the team’s size. But Martinelli was so good in the 4-0 win that I wouldn’t ultimately pull the trigger.
Set Pieces Rule Everything Around Me.
That’s all for now.
Happy grilling, everybody.
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