One thing that came out of this game was that sides who have their midwinter break over the second weekend of this new fangled idea, and then face teams that missed the initial weekend in their first game back, have an advantage over their opponents. And Arsenal were not only hampered by having played a Premier League game last weekend, but the trip to Greece in midweek. Against a far fresher Everton, this made it a remarkable, albeit slightly fortuitous triumph.
At least Arteta’s most used players can have something of a rest for a fortnight. Even the most regular of the first team will surely only play one of the two matches against Olympiacos and Portsmouth, before West Ham visit on the first Saturday in March.
The opposition in the three league matches after the Hammers are Brighton, Southampton and Norwich. All teams below Arsenal in the table and three of them in danger of relegation. Arteta’s team really have to try and take the 12 points on offer here to add to the six gained against Newcastle and Everton. The table then, will look far healthier and give Arsenal some meaningful matches in April and May.
Beating Carlo Ancelotti’s side was crucial in this respect, and at the end of it all, the result excuses what was a performance evidently influenced by recent efforts in the final 30 minutes of the game. The home team’s task was not made any easier by allowing a goal against before two minutes were up, as they failed to deal with a fairly simple free kick into their penalty area, exposing that balls in the air are an area of weakness that needs to be worked on.
The starting eleven saw Sead Kolasinac replace Bukayo Saka, as much as anything to give the 18 year old a break. I was told that Saka is currently collecting £3,000 a week in wages, less than 100th of the club’s highest player. Hopefully, his value will be recognized in negotiations soon and he can be tied down to the club for the long term. Kolasinac suffered a shoulder injury with the game still at 1-0 and Saka replaced him. A surprise selection saw Eddie Nketiah retained from the win against Newcastle, even if he’d struggled a bit in that match. Alex Lacazette returned to the bench after scoring the winner on Thursday evening. It was Saka and Nketiah that combined to level the scores after a peach of a cross from the left back, set up by Xhaka, was met by Nketiah who administered an excellent touch to guide the ball past Jordan Pickford. Aubameyang followed up with a goal from a David Luiz through ball which was reminiscent of Thierry Henry, so good was its placement. 2-1 and things were looking much better.
Sadly, it couldn’t last until half time, as deep into injury time, Everton bundled the ball over the line after a failure to clear a corner properly. Bernd Leno hardly covered himself in glory and home fans were left hoping a Mikel Arteta half-time team talk could improve things. Once again, a ball in the air proved his team’s undoing.
Whatever was said during the interval had immediate effect as before many were back in their seats, the Gunners were ahead. A decent cross by Pepe was met by Aubameyang’s head and guided into the net. It took him to 17 goals in the Premier League this season, joint first with Jamie Vardy. His value to the club is obvious and they really need to try and persuade him to extend his deal by a couple of seasons. The remainder of the game was hard work. Yes, Nketiah did hit the bar after Everton made a hash of playing the ball out, but Everton had two genuinely excellent chances to make it 3-3, and on another day, would have left with a point. As Arsenal flagged, they were less able to restrict space, allowing Everton to produce greater danger in the final third. Saka was evidently spent as he started to give the ball away more often than expected.
Ceballos was replaced by Torreira and Ozil by Guendouzi bringing fresh legs to proceedings, but it would be difficult to argue that the Gunners were doing anything more than hanging on as the clock gradually eased towards full time. Credit to Everton and Ancelotti for the way they approached the game, finding space, stretching the play and getting the ball forward with pace and purpose. It was highly untypical of what we generally see at Arsenal home games from the visiting club, and Arteta’s team only just shaded the amount of possession. I have no doubt the experienced Italian has identified the areas where he most needs to strengthen and that the club’s owner will support this in the transfer market next summer.
Of course, this isn’t the case at Arsenal, which is why the extra £40m they can make from Europa League participation next season is significant, and why yesterday’s victory was so key. One quandary Arteta has is how much he can continue risking Saka in every game. One assumes Kolasinac will be out for up to a month, and as we know left back options are currently thin on the ground, given that both Tierney and Kolsinac are in the treatment room. Perhaps it’s worth fielding Maitland-Niles there for the odd game, as I have a memory of him playing in the position previously.
Interestingly, Arteta was late attending the post-match press conference. A long session of teacup throwing in the dressing room? No – the head coach himself oversaw a post-match session for the players that started the game on the bench (with the exception of Saka) on the pitch involving mannequins and full-size goals, apparently doing some work on positioning. Perhaps he saw something in the match that he was keen to get across, and there’s little question that these players will be seeing more gametime in the next two fixtures. It shows Arteta is not too concerned about convention and does things his way. And if the hacks have to hang around for an extra 20 minutes, so be it.
As for the 90 minutes that proceeded it, in the short term, the result was more important than the performance, but given the respective freshness of the two sides, the mistakes made and the drop in defensive intensity are understandable. Arteta doesn’t have enough fit players to rotate as much as he’d like, nor arguably the quality. But even if Arsenal were fortunate, they fashioned three goals and hung on for over 45 minutes to get a crucial win. I have no doubt they will be exhausted, but three wins in a row is exactly what we want to see after so many draws. Credit to Arteta and his players for producing them.
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