Everton vs. Arsenal: Gunners show bright and dark sides in 2-2 draw

   We learned a lot from Arsenal’s 2-2 draw with Everton in the Premier League on Saturday. First, the Gunners are not title contenders. When they were down 2-0 at halftime and their attack looked toothless, I’m sure some fans started thinking about the 3-0 loss at Goodison Park in April. Basically, the team doesn’t have a strong spine yet. We still miss a world-class centerback, a top defensive midfielder and a prolific striker.

Everton vs. Arsenal

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

   For years, Arsenal couldn’t compete financially with Chelsea and Manchester City and had to buy good value players (Mertesacker, Arteta, Giroud, Cazorla, Podolski) while their rivals would lavishly spend on superstars (Toure, Aguero, Tevez, Torres, Shevchenko, Hazard). It’s only since last summer, when Ozil was signed for a fee of 42.5 million pounds, that the club has enjoyed more maneuvering room in the transfer market. I guess it will take at least a couple more years to catch up with the Blues and the Citizens.

   The second lesson is that there’s enough quality in the squad to finish third or even second. The Gunners showed tremendous character to rally from a two-goal deficit with just 10 minutes left. They are not 100 percent sharp and still lack fluidity in their passing game, but the team spirit that helped Arsenal win the FA Cup last season is still alive.

Travel fatigue

   On Saturday, Wenger made four changes from the side that drew 0-0 with Besiktas in the Champions League playoffs. Flamini replaced an injured Arteta, Mertesacker got the nod over Koscielny, while Ozil and Oxlade-Chamberlain allowed Cazorla and Giroud to rest on the bench. It was a smart move from the manager but also a reckless one.

   Some rotation was definitely needed because the players used up a lot of energy for the match in Turkey. A telling sign of the lingering fatigue was the number of fouls made by the Gunners because they were a split second late in a challenge. On the other hand, I thought it was risky to start Ozil and play Sanchez as a centerforward.

   Ozil lacked match fitness and slowed his team’s passing game by taking too many touches and not releasing the ball quickly enough. The Germany playmaker wasted a good chance in the 36th minute by not pouncing on a loose ball after his pass for Sanchez was intercepted. Sanchez is a world-class forward but he didn’t make the cut in the lone striker role. For sure, he didn’t get much attacking support from his teammates. But I think he’s not strong enough in the air and not powerful enough to anchor the offensive line.

What a lone striker must have in England

   While pace alone might be enough for a centerforward in some European leagues, it’s not the main requirement in the Premier League. Walcott also struggled in that position. If we take a look at the centerforwards who succeeded under Wenger (Anelka, Henry, Van Persie, Adebayor and Giroud), we can notice that they had at least two skills in common: good aerial ability and good ability to hold the ball up. Sanogo fits much more that profile than Sanchez. Arsenal’s passing game improved after Giroud replaced Sanchez at halftime.

   Chambo provided penetration and movement but he still needs to work on what Ramsey was missing two years ago: composure. He lacked patience in the 11th minute, attempting a speculative shot from 25 yards while stretching the Everton defense with a pass was the better option. Poor clearances from Coleman and Jagielka in the 15th and 31st respectively gave Chambo half-chances but each time he dragged his shot wide. Cazorla came on for Chambo in the 74th and made the difference with a pinpoint low cross for Ramsey’s goal.

Chambers’ inexperience

   Chambers was outstanding against Manchester City and Crystal Palace, but at 19 he’s still learning the ropes. He showed his inexperience by making two mistakes that led to the Toffees’ goals. Barry sent a ball over the top to Coleman, who powered a header past Szczesny for the opener in the 19th. Mertesacker, Monreal and Debuchy made a couple of steps forward to play Coleman offside while Chambers did not.

   I thought it was a risky move by the manager to have a new partnership at the back against Everton. Now, did Mertesacker need a game under his belt before possibly starting against Besiktas on Wednesday, and to what extent did Koscielny need some rest? Chambers was not the only player at fault on that play. Sanchez and Ramsey gave Barry plenty of time while Ozil failed to mark Coleman. You know the old saying: defending is a team effort.

   Chambers was obviously unsettled by that mistake. Mirallas got ahead of the English defender in the 22nd to connect with a long ball from Barry but slid his effort wide. Chambers then made a late challenge on Mirallas, back to goal in the 34th, to give away a dangerous free kick.

Officiating mistakes

   The Gunners were vulnerable on the fast break last season and a turnover on the stroke of halftime reminded them of that flaw. Jagielka cleared a pass from Ozil and Lukaku beat Mertesacker to the ball to feed Naismith, who slipped the ball through Szczesny’s legs for a 2-0 lead.

   The officiating was mediocre on that play. The referee failed to spot Lukaku’s shove on Mertesacker while the linesman did not see that Naismith was offside. But the most embarrassing part of that counterattack was how Chambers missed his tackle on Lukaku. That was poor decision-making. With no cover at the back, Chambers simply had to trap Lukaku along the touchline.

   Arsenal’s offense wasn’t clicking, so the manager decided to send on Giroud at the start of the second half. Giroud made a run at the far post in the 46th but volleyed Chambo’s cross over the bar. I thought Giroud should have opted for accuracy with a side-footed effort instead of going for power. A poor clearance from the Everton defense fell to Giroud in the 69th but Howard stopped the low strike from the Frenchman. It’s hard to believe that it took 69 minutes for Howard to make his first save.

Staking our season on a deal

   Watching Giroud play can be frustrating. He missed two good chances against Besiktas and did not seem to have his shooting boots on at Goodison Park. But tactical mistakes by Martinez helped Arsenal get back in the game. The Everton manager tacitly gave up on attacking by replacing Lukaku with McGeady in the 76th and Mirallas with Atsu in the 84th. The Toffees outnumbered Arsenal inside the area in the 83rd but Ramsey proved quicker than two defenders to convert Cazorla’s low cross.

   Giroud missed the equalizer in the 86th by heading wide a corner. But he made amends four minutes later by beating Distin to the ball to head home Monreal’s cross. Giroud and Ramsey are the two players who led Arsenal’s title bid last season. The Frenchman’s foot injury in stoppage time definitely puts the club in a tough spot. The manager’s options are limited: Sanchez, Podolski and Campbell don’t have the skills to shine at centerforward in the Premier League, while Sanogo is unproven at the top level.

   That leaves the transfer market as the best option. Cavani and Falcao have been mentioned but they are not realistic targets for the simple reason that any deal would cost more than 60 million euros. In the past, the Gunners have been linked to Reus and Draxler. Could Arsenal convince Schalke or Dortmund to sell one of their best players? Draxler is four years younger and would cost less but Reus is ready now and scores more goals. It’s frightening to think that our season could depend on a transfer…