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Talking Tactics (Arsenal v Everton): Good signs under Arteta; Gomes helps Everton

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang's brace earned Arsenal the three points in a thrillingly chaotic contest at the Emirates on Sunday that, as expected, was defined by Arsenal's skilful young attackers, Everton's sharp counter-attacks, and two error-prone defences.

Everton dominated the first 15 minutes after taking an early lead only for Arsenal to assert their authority up to the half-time whistle thanks to intelligent runs in behind and some brilliant play from their widest players Nicolas Pepe and Bukayo Saka. But the Toffees' possession grew and grew in the second half – because of 'cramping', according to Mikel Arteta – and the visitors should have grabbed an equaliser.

Carlo Ancelotti will be disappointed to have left empty handed, but not disheartened. This was a frantic end-to-end match that should inspire optimism in both sets of supporters.

1) Arsenal's frequent through balls are a surprising feature under Arteta

One tactical aspect of Arteta's tenure that has flown under the radar is the dramatic increase in runs being made on the shoulder of the last defender. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Nicolas Pepe, Bukayo Saka, Hector Bellerin, and Eddie Nketiah were all looking to get behind Everton's compact, midblock 4-4-2 – and the Arsenal midfielders were consistently looking to play a through ball.

The tactic is helping Arsenal keep the tempo up and play more directly, while also forcing the opponent back and making the most of the pace in the Gunners' attack. Everton could scarcely cope in the first half, particularly when these moves were focused down Arsenal's left, where Dijbril Sidibe struggled to hold the correct position.

A willingness to play so directly shows that Mikel Arteta wants Arsenal to have a variety of attacking methods at their disposal, which marks them out quite distinctly from his mentor Pep Guardiola's Manchester City.

2) Richarlison exploits the one flaw in Arsenal's formation

Everton's main source of attack was to counter down the left, where Richarlison moved out into space behind Hector Bellerin. The Brazilian interacted well with strike partner Dominic Calvert-Lewin and was supported by Gylfi Sigurdsson, who looked comfortable in a hybrid left wing/central attacking midfield role (he and Alex Iwobi alternate moving infield, depending on which flank the ball was on).

Everton are likely to have attacked this way regardless of the opposition, but nevertheless it happened to exploit the biggest problem with Arteta's tactical shape. While on their left side Granit Xhaka can shuttle across to protect the space behind Bukayo Saka there is no equivalent on the right. When Ainsley Maitland-Niles was at right-back he would largely play an inverted role, screening against the opposition counter, but with Bellerin playing it creates a problem.

Calvert-Lewin was millimetres away from getting on the end of several crosses in the second half as Richarlison again and again was released behind Bellerin. Arteta needs to prioritise finding a solution.

3) Ceballos & Ozil run the game with freer roles amid organised Arsenal shape

Arsenal's highly-structured formation was complimented on Sunday by the flitting movement of Dani Ceballos and Mesut Ozil, who excelled in freer roles while their team-mates stayed more diligently in shape. Like Kevin de Bruyne and David Silva at City, Arteta's team need one or two players to break the mould and break the lines. Today, his playmakers were bang on form.

Their distribution wore Everton down, particularly in the first half, with Ozil often moving the ball neatly out to the flanks where Pepe and Saka could take on the Everton full-backs. In previous matches Ozil has struggled, while Ceballos hasn't had enough midfield support to consistently pierce the opposition defence, but on Sunday we saw a glimpse of how good these two could be together.

They only took 100 touches between them and completed a solitary key pass, but the statistics do not reflect the reality – or rather they highlight the subtlety of their influence; Ozil and Ceballos kept things ticking along with crisp interchanges.

4) Returning Gomes offers solution to flatness in Everton midfield

As Everton began to hold more possession in the second half their counter-attacking threat diminished, and during this period of the match Fabien Delph and Morgan Schneiderlin both looked a little lost; unable to turn on the ball or feed the forward players. Ancelotti spotted this problem and introduced Andre Gomes, returning from a serious injury, and the Portuguese instantly highlighted what the Toffees had been missing.

Whereas Delph dropped into an oddly deep left-back position to collect the ball, thus evading the Arsenal press but making it impossible to really influence the game, Gomes was happy to receive possession in congested areas. He showed intelligence and craft in turning on the ball and advancing up the pitch, creating more jitters in an Arsenal team that dropped deeper once Gomes had established himself.

Unfortunately, Gomes is not a long-term solution. He has always been guilty of fading or going missing altogether, such as in the 2-0 defeat to Aston Villa in August. Ancelotti, then, needs to sign an assertive central midfielder this summer.

5) Arsenal will be utterly transformed by signing two centre-backs

Both Everton goals came from set-pieces, making Arsenal the second worst team in the division (behind Aston Villa) at defending them – with 12 conceded so far. However, these set-pieces were earned primarily through poor defensive positional play from David Luiz and Shkodran Mustafi. If Arteta finds replacements in the summer, Arsenal will be a completely different side.

Mustafi defended well for the most part, and yet he failed to work out how to cover for Bellerin as Richarlison repeatedly broke. The German also missed a header in the build-up to Everton's second, while Luiz's attempted clearance set up Calvert-Lewin for the opener. Neither player is good enough for a Champions League level side, which after back-to-back league wins must now be the aim for Arsenal.

Arteta's high defensive line is a risky strategy that requires diligence, consistency, and speed from the centre-backs. As former assistant manager at Man City, he knows as well as anyone how hard it can be to find the right fit. It won't be easy, but Luiz and Mustafi need replacing.

Alex Keble
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Alex Keble

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