03 April 2014

Thursday Throwdown: The Sticky Toffees Match

Can Arteta return to form against his
former club?
(CC Licence / Wikimedia)
Sam: After a week which saw Arsenal take just 2 points from 9 - though which finished with a strong 45 minutes against potential league champions Manchester City - the Gunners could be facing the strongest competition to their Champions League streak in the form of a surging Everton, who have won five on the bounce and find themselves 4 points behind Arsenal with a game in hand. Anything but an Arsenal win at Goodison will leave the race for fourth in the Toffees' own hands. So, Andy, what are the keys to what will be one of the Club's most important games of the season?

Andrew: I think first and foremost the emphasis must be on defensive discipline. The back line was the driving force behind last season's surge to fourth place, but while the Gunners are still fourth in Goals Against in 2013-2014 (and that number is skewed by several lopsided losses) there has been an element of panic in the last couple matches. The Chelsea loss was an unmitigated disaster of course while the draw with Swansea was inexplicably open at times. Arsenal needs to get back to that fortress defense they can rely on and take the game to Everton without getting out of sorts at the back.

The pairing of Mikel Arteta and Mathieu Flamini has come under some fire this year but I suspect that will be the makeup of central midfield come Sunday. Arsenal cannot sit back and try to absorb pressure for ninety minutes because they need the points and Everton is too good to allow them the run of the field, but this might be one of those matches where Arsenal tries to stonewall the opposition and then slowly come into the game on the attack.

Sam: I'm inclined to agree. It's another early match away from home to a team around us in the table, which Arsenal have been notoriously bad at this season. Arsene Wenger isn't usually the type to sit back and absorb pressure (see: Chelsea away), so the hope is that the Gunners retain possession for the first half-hour or so and play their way in to comfort, rather than recklessly going for it straight from the first whistle.

I'm glad you raised the central midfield subject. Arteta especialy has come under heavy criticism in recent weeks, and is looking a little under par. I'm hearing more people talk about a thought I've proposed over the years, and that's the prospect of pushing Thomas Vermaelen up in to defensive midfield. This obviously won't happen this weekend with Laurent Koscielny injured, but how would you feel about it as a future option? Also, what about going forward; who needs a strong performance? Do you start with The Ox or Poldi?

Andrew: I think Arteta has his issues and Arsenal do need to upgrade that position going forward. That isn't a knock on Arteta because he has played very well at CDM over the last two or so years, but he is aging and the protection in front of the back four is essential.

That being said, I don't think Vermaelen is the man for the job. His main issue, aside from the tendency to commit foolish fouls in dangerous areas, is an ambition to jump into the offense whenever he can. This will happen sometimes even from the centre back spot where he sees some space and carries the ball into it, so I can't imagine how daring he might become once pushed up into midfield, even in a defensive minded position. If someone like Isaac Hayden isn't ready to take over next season (and I don't believe he will be), this will be a spot Arsenal will have to improve in the transfer market.

I see Everton being attack-minded in this game due to their style, their place in the table, and the fact that they're playing at home. Because of that, it is imperative that Arsene choose a midfield that can play well on the counter. A midfield of Cazorla, Rosicky, and Oxlade-Chamberlain would give the Gunners pace and creativity and it's a midfield that can play well dashing forward as well as holding in possession That would be my choice for Sunday. Am I way off base here? Do you see things turning differently during the match?

Sam: It's true that Vermaelen can be a bit reckless, is probably too old for a serious positional change, and playing midfield might give him license to turn in to David Luiz. But it could be something worth thinking about as a situational option. Besides, Flamini was playing that position against City, yet I remember remarking several times about him being the Arsenal player furthest up the pitch, and look how that worked out last Saturday!

Rosicky continues to impress, despite his
advancing years
(CC Licence / Wikimedia)
Anyway, I would expect that to be the more advanced midfield trio. Hopefully Wenger will learn from the City game, as Podolski's lack of defensive discipline left Arsenal's left side exposed and Man City created most of their chances from that flank during the game. Super Tom has been a late-season revelation - again! - offering great ball-retention and a willingness to track back, while Ox is always a threat from deep with his pace, strength and dribbling ability. Cazorla is probably an automatic pick right now, so, really, it's a choice of 3 of the 4 names we've mentioned, due to injuries, and the team pretty much picks itself at this point. Unless you can see Wenger throwing a curveball... I've just remembered Kallstrom! Any chance he starts?

Everton will go in to this game knowing they have (probably) the upper hand in the battle for 4th. Combine that with a manager like Roberto Martinez, who only seems to know how to play attractive football, then I agree that we can expect an attacking Everton formation/side.

Andrew: I actually had the Kallstrom thought too except mine came after I sent the email instead of before. It is certainly possible Wenger gives him a run out, but for such an important game I'd guess he stays with what's familiar. Still, that is one of those lineup changes that I wouldn't bet on but wouldn't surprise me either.

I disagree with you as I don't believe Everton have the upper hand, though obviously everything could turn on Sunday's match. Martinez's side does have the game in hand, but their schedule is more difficult as they host both Manchester sides and travel to Southampton while Arsenal's toughest battles may be against teams like Hull and Norwich fighting to avoid relegation. There are too many variables to call the race after the trip to Everton regardless of the result, but it is imperative that the Gunners put their best effort forward and reclaim a sizable lead.

Sam: I should have clarified that what I meant by Everton having the upper hand is that's according to the media, who always think a game in hand means is worth more than it should (except for the odd case of Man City, where pundits seem to think Liverpool will win the league - and seem to want them to! - even though City have 2 games in hand). But yeah, on paper this is the hardest remaining game in Arsenal's fixture list, so a win would go a long way to helping the Gunners consolidate fourth ... man, I hate thinking that season after season. I can't believe we were still talking title challenges a month ago.

Anyway, that's as good a place to stop as any. As ever, COYG!

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