Everton vs. Arsenal: Gunners’ season takes an ugly turn

   The Gunners no longer have their destiny in their own hands after losing 3-0 at Goodison Park on Sunday. They’re still one point clear of Everton in the Premier League standings but the Toffees have a game in hand. When Arsenal held the top spot in the first half of the season, most fans assumed that the club just needed a great striker to become a serious contender. Unfortunately, the second half of the season shows that Wenger still hasn’t fixed his team’s defensive frailties.

   This is Arsenal’s worst season on the road against the top 5 teams since the move to the Emirates Stadium. The Gunners lost 6-3 at Manchester City, 5-1 at Liverpool, 6-0 at Chelsea and 3-0 at Everton. The club had never suffered so many humiliating defeats in the past seven seasons.

2012-13 season: Arsenal lost 2-1 at Tottenham, lost 2-1 at Chelsea, lost 2-1 at Manchester United, and drew 1-1 at Manchester City.

2011-12 season: Arsenal lost 8-2 at Manchester United, lost 1-0 at Manchester City, lost 2-1 at Tottenham, and drew 0-0 at Newcastle.

2010-11 season: Arsenal lost 3-0 at Manchester City, lost 2-0 at Chelsea, lost 1-0 at Manchester United, and drew 3-3 at Tottenham.

2009-10 season: Arsenal lost 4-2 at Manchester City, lost 2-1 at Manchester United, lost 2-0 at Chelsea, and lost 2-1 at Tottenham.

2008-09: Arsenal drew 0-0 at Manchester United, drew 4-4 at Liverpool, drew 1-1 at Everton, and won 2-1 at Chelsea.

2007-08: Arsenal lost 2-1 at Manchester United, lost 2-1 at Chelsea, drew 1-1 at Liverpool, and won 4-1 at Everton.

2006-07 season: Arsenal lost 4-1 at Liverpool, lost 1-0 at Manchester United, drew 1-1 at Chelsea, and drew 2-2 at Tottenham.

Defensive standards declining

   It’s clearly a downward trend that speaks volumes about the Gunners’ mental weakness. They failed to rise to the occasion in the big games. The title was at stake against Liverpool and Chelsea while 4th place was the obvious prize at Goodison Park. It really hurts to see all the good work from last year getting undone. The decline in our defensive standards since the Christmas period helps explain our fall in the standings. When Arsenal led the league with 42 points from 19 matches, it also had the tightest defense, conceding only 18 goals. Now Arsenal has just the sixth tightest defense with 40 goals let in. It’s so embarrassing to see that even Crystal Palace has a better defense.

   Whatever the result of the five remaining games, the Gunners will end up conceding more goals than last season (37), when it claimed the second tightest defense in the league. That defensive record could be overlooked if Arsenal had a potent offense. But with 56 goals scored, the Gunners are far behind Manchester City (84) and Liverpool (90). Chelsea (65) has even scored more goals than Arsenal although Mourinho is unhappy with his striking options. Unless they score more than three goals per game, the Gunners will also end up scoring fewer goals than last season (72).

   The last time our defensive record looked decent was the 2007-08 season with 31 goals conceded. The following seasons ranged from average (37 goals in 2008-09 and 2012-13, 41 goals in 2009-10) to mediocre (43 goals in 2010-11 and 49 goals in 2011-12). Last season gave some hope that Wenger and Bould put an end to our defensive flaws. However, the last couple of months showed not much has changed in the club’s tactical culture. And that’s what makes the fans upset.

Rebuilding the squad

   We have holes at centerback, in midfield and up front. The manager has tried to rebuild the team but we still have no solid foundations. In the past, we had financial excuses because the club had to sell players to trim its debt. But since last summer, the debt has been stabilized at about 100 million pounds, and the priority has shifted from finance to sport with an emphasis on making the club more competitive on the pitch. Should Wenger be given another year to hire the three key players he’s missing, or does the club need another manager to properly rebuild the squad?

   Wenger started on Sunday the same team that performed well against Manchester City, at the exception of Monreal, who deputized for the injured Gibbs. Unfortunately, the Gunners looked as pedestrian as in the matches against Swansea and Chelsea. The Toffees showed more desire and commitment while Arsenal, low on confidence, created very few chances.

   Martinez outfoxed Wenger by playing Naismith up front and Lukaku on our left wing. Naismith helped disrupt Arsenal’s passing game by man-marking Arteta, who lacks the pace and power of a Vieira to boss the midfield. Flamini’s performance did not add much serenity. The Frenchman’s technical limits resulted in several turnovers, including one that led him to foul Naismith in the 44th minute and earn a yellow card.

Giroud’s lack of energy

   Naismith is not a proven scorer but he still managed to find the net on Sunday. His work rate contrasted with Giroud’s lack of energy. The Frenchman pounced on a sloppy pass from Coleman in the 14th but was beaten to the ball by Howard. Giroud then beat his marker in the 21st to meet a cross from Sagna but flicked the ball wide from close range. In my eyes, a good striker would have caught the frame. The 36-year-old Distin had Giroud in his pocket for most of the match. In the second half, pressure from Sagna helped Giroud steal the ball from Mirallas but Howard denied the Frenchman.

   Giroud was replaced in the 71st by Sanogo, who beat Howard in stoppage time but had his goal disallowed for offside. TV replays showed Sanogo was onside when Sagna played him in. That goal would have been massive for the rookie’s self-belief. I hope the manager will give Sanogo the nod for the next couple of games because we really lack movement up front.

   The Toffees did a lot of damage on the wings. Mirallas and Baines combined on our right flank like Zabaleta and Navas did on our left flank a week ago. While Podolski was the culprit at the Etihad Stadium, it was Cazorla who let Sagna down on Sunday. Wide players sometimes cut inside to provide numerical superiority in midfield, but that’s no excuse for not tracking a fullback’s run. On our left flank, Lukaku capitalized on Monreal’s lack of pace to easily find space.

Poor positional play and decision-making

   Everton’s three goals exposed Arsenal’s poor positional play and decision-making. Lukaku connected with a low cross from Baines in the 14th to fire a low strike. Szczesny made the save, but Naismith followed up to score the opener. Cazorla failed to mark Baines on that play, while Vermaelen failed to intercept Baines’ pass and Lukaku got ahead of Monreal.

   Vermaelen and Monreal were again guilty on the second goal. Arteta intercepted a long pass from Barkley in the 34th but the ball somehow fell to Naismith, who found Mirallas in midfield. Mirallas released Lukaku down our right flank, and the Belgian striker cut inside Monreal and Vermaelen to bury the ball into the bottom corner. Arteta was isolated on that play, while Monreal should have challenged Lukaku outside the box. Once the Belgian forward penetrated inside the area, a block was the only option left but Vermaelen gave Lukaku too much space for a shot.

   The Toffees double-teamed Sagna to win the ball for the third goal in the 61st. Mirallas fed Naismith, who was denied by Szczesny. Under pressure from Mirallas, Arteta missed his clearance and slid the rebound into his own net. Giroud and Cazorla gave Sagna no support on that play while Vermaelen failed to mark Naismith. Koscielny would have done better than Vermaelen, but let’s not forget that the Frenchman did not cover himself in glory at Chelsea and Liverpool.

   The scoreline could have been more flattering for Everton if Szczesny had not made a couple of saves. Arsenal’s lack of defensive focus was obvious by the second minute, when Osman had plenty of time and space to receive a thrown-in from Baines and fired a half-volley that sailed wide. Cazorla’s poor defensive contribution allowed Baines to make a teasing cross in the 20th. An unmarked McCarthy got hold of the ball at the far post and fired a low drive that Naismith diverted into Szczesny’s arms. In the 24th, Barkley found Mirallas, who fed Naismith. Vermaelen intercepted the ball, which bounced off Flamini and into the path of Mirallas, but Szczesny saved the Belgian winger’s low effort.

Barkley, the heartbeat of Everton

   Barkley was the heartbeat of this Everton side, but none of our midfielders marked him. The 20-year-old prodigy had an angled shot stopped by Szczesny in the 30th. Liverpool showed in February how the Arsenal defense struggles with pacy wingers. Martinez rubbed salt in the wound with Mirallas and Lukaku on the wings. Mirallas cut inside Cazorla in the 31st but had his low strike palmed away by Szczesny. Lukaku then skipped past Flamini in the 38th but missed the target.

   The Gunners were uninspired in the first half and relied on long-range attempts to test Howard. Flamini shot straight at the keeper from 25 yards in the 11th. Then Podolski had a first-time effort tipped over the bar in the 40th after Stones poorly cleared a cross from Monreal. The Toffees pretty much controlled the match in the second half, limiting Arsenal to a wide shot from Flamini in the 54th and a tame header from Vermaelen in the 58th. Barkley took advantage of some poor marking again to take a pass from Lukaku in the 63rd but he was denied by Szczesny.

   Wenger sent on Oxlade-Chamberlain and Ramsey for Podolski and Flamini five minutes after Everton added a third goal. The manager opted for experience by starting Rosicky and Cazorla but both players disappointed on Sunday. In hindsight, Chambo would have provided more penetration on the wings. Maybe Wenger was deterred by Chambo’s turnover rate in previous games. Chambo cut inside Coleman and McCarthy in the 86th to unleash a powerful strike that Howard diverted onto the bar.

Can Wenger work his magic?

   Some fans say the Gunners are still the favorite for the last Champions League spot because of an easier run-in. Arsenal will host West Ham, Newcastle and West Bromwich and visit Hull and Norwich. Meanwhile, Everton will host Crystal Palace, Manchester United and Manchester City and visit Sunderland, Southampton and Hull. On paper, the Toffees should drop more points than the Gunners.

   The real problem is Arsenal’s poor form. The Gunners have racked up only five points from their last six games in the league while Everton has won all of them. The situation almost looks similar to last season’s battle for fourth place between Arsenal and Tottenham. The Gunners finished strong with eight victories and two draws to pip the Spurs to the post. Tottenham won five games, but drew three and lost two over the same stretch. The club badly needs Wenger’s magic now to instil tactical discipline and confidence in the squad.

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Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com

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