Tactician's Corner: Everton outwits Arsenal, but lets lead slip away
Everton used a dynamic formation to flummox Arsenal on Saturday, leaving the Gunners to scramble two late goals for a 2-2 draw. Toffees manager Roberto Martínez showed again how little formations mean and how influential choreographed movement patterns are in the modern game, as his team controlled much of the match.
The only players whose positions weren’t in flux were center backs Sylvain Distin and Phil Jagielka, with Gareth Barry often holding in front. The other seven field players flowed with the play, at times in a 4-3-3 or permutations of 4-4-2 with a box midfield or 4-3-2-1.
At every club he has managed, Martínez has instilled his main philosophical points of emphasis: central overloads with one-on-one specialists running the flanks. At Everton, though, he found the perfect pair in fullbacks Leighton Baines and Seamus Coleman, along with a number of wingers who are comfortable playing wide and tucking in at the right moments. With Ross Barkley out of the lineup, the Toffees have emphasized wide play even more, as nobody else fits the central playmaker role quite as well. This was apparent on Saturday, as Everton's overlapping fullbacks provided the most dangerous moments.
Playmakers in the No. 10 space are key to unlocking Zone 14, statistically the most dangerous space for attacking movements found by dividing the pitch into an 18-zone grid.
According to a study by the League Managers Association School of Football Management during the 2014 World Cup, 57.2 percent of attempted deliveries into the penalty area from Zone 14 were successful. Getting into the penalty area — where 83.3 percent of the World Cup’s goals were scored, not counting penalties — is easiest from passes in the area just above the 18-yard box.
Both of Everton’s assists Saturday came from Zone 14 and were put home from inside the penalty area, first on Barry’s cross to Coleman and then on Romelu Lukaku’s slipped ball through to Steven Naismith.
However, Everton’s build-up focused primarily in wide spaces and on the border between Zone 14 and the zones on either side. German tacticians have dubbed these areas the halbraum, or “half-spaces,” and their importance is becoming clearer as awkward spots between where center backs and fullbacks are usually stationed.
Most of the Toffees’ touches inside Zone 14 on Saturday came in the halbraum, facilitated by Lukaku and Kevin Mirallas’ wide starting positions and the overlapping fullbacks.
On the other side, Arsenal also emphasized getting its fullbacks high early, but that ended up being exploited several times, including on the second Everton goal. When they got caught forward and had to recover at a full sprint, the center backs were left stranded.
Lukaku went by the center backs and slipped a ball behind the recovering players for Naismith to slide into the goal. Naismith was a step offside, but the ball ended up at his feet far too easily due to Arsenal’s play up the field.
That play personified one reason for the recent trend toward three-man defensive lines: sending both fullbacks high at the same time leaves a team open to incisive counterattacks. Pep Guardiola learned that when Real Madrid ripped open his Bayern Munich in the Champions League semifinal last season, leading him toward his new work-in-progress 3-4-2-1 system at Bayern.
Arsenal’s fullbacks were under pressure to provide attacking width on both sides due to Arsène Wenger playing, essentially, six central players in front of the back four and the wingers’ lack of tracking back. Possibly the only player who has played extensively as a true winger, Alexis Sánchez, started as the target forward and struggled to impact the game in his 45 minutes on the pitch.
In response, Everton played a box midfield defensively, creating four-on-three and making it difficult for Arsenal to find the forward line without direct play. The wide players split to prevent early outlet passes to the fullbacks.
Naismith played as a false 9, popping up between Lukaku and Mirallas or dropping into midfield, depending on the situation. The Gunners couldn’t play out of the back, and Everton felt comfortable playing one-on-one with its back four because they were superior in 50-50 situations, winning 62 percent of tackles and 67 percent of aerial duels.
Despite having the match under control, Everton dropped two points after a let-down in the second half. Olivier Giroud and Santi Cazorla played major roles off the bench in the reversal.
Cazorla in particular has been a catalyst for the Arsenal attack possibly more than any other player in the past two seasons. With Özil still clearly uncomfortable when played wide and Jack Wilshere continuing to struggle, Cazorla was crucial on Saturday.
He assisted Ramsey on the first goal, also helped by the considerably slower pace of the game in the second half. That gave Arsenal more time to pick its passes in the attacking third.
Despite having comfortable cover as Cazorla received the ball on the first goal, the nearest Everton defenders failed to pressure the ball. The fact that there were no other Arsenal players in the penalty area should have been another cue to pressure, but Ramsey eventually made a run toward goal.
Cazorla drove a superb ball along the ground and across the face of the six-yard box for a simple tap-in, which should have been a wake-up call. Instead, Giroud got in front of Distin to win an individual battle in the box at another vital moment, equalizing on a simple header in the 90th minute.
Martínez outcoached Wenger on Saturday, but his team became complacent and lost the opportunity to make an important early statement. As they did the first week at Leicester City, the Toffees failed to play a full 90-minute match and drew 2-2.
For Arsenal, Saturday again showed the team’s lack of real identity above the individual level. Wenger deserves credit for making the right substitutions, but his team seems to have little idea of how to go forward or defend as a unit. The Gunners have relied too long on moments of individual brilliance, such as Cazorla’s pinpoint cross or Giroud’s finish in the box.
Without a fast reversal on the training ground, it could be another frustrating season for Arsenal in league and continental competitions. Recent FA Cup and Community Shield victories have masked otherwise average performances from Wenger’s team over the last few seasons.