Arsenal needed a win Saturday to get their campaign back on track for the final run-in and to put some pressure on Leicester, who played right after them and they finally showed up with two first half goals that decided the game. The first came in the seventh minute, when a clever exchange between Ozil and Sanchez set Welbeck free on goal. He held his run well, rounded Robles and then cut the ball into the open net (7’). Then, after squandering a few more chances, Bellerin sent the ball long up the pitch to a charging Iwobi, who took two excellent touches and then slotted the ball between Robles’ legs for a 2-0 lead (42’). Everton were unable to mount much of a challenge, except with about 20 minutes to play when Lukaku clattered into Ospina and left the Columbian international limping around for a good 10 minutes as they forged forward.
But their momentum fizzled and Arsenal scored a third in the 83rd minute when a Sanchez corner found Giroud, who headed past Robles. Or so they thought. For not the first time in the match, a questionable call by Clattenburg and his crew cost them, as Giroud was adjudged to have fouled Jagielka in the box when, in fact, the Toffee defender actually tripped over Iwobi. Given how important goal difference could end up being, it was pretty disappointing from a referee who seems to make far too many mistakes for a top flight referee. Yet Arsenal were still able to gain all three points and leave Everton in a disappointing 12th place, with only the FA Cup to play for in a season of inconsistency and underperformance.
Three Thoughts on the Game:
1. The Good: the youngsters, Welbeck, Iwobi and Elneny, played a huge role in Arsenal finally getting back to winning ways after a terrible stretch and it is clear that Welbeck provides a substantially more dynamic option up front than either the misfiring Giroud or the “invisible man” (Walcott). Iwobi still seems a little raw, missing out on open players on the counter on a few occasions, but his all-important goal right before halftime on an excellent long pass from Bellerin showed considerable poise. It is clear that the front line of Ozil, Sanchez, Iwobi and Welbeck are playing a more dynamic brand of football that creates more opportunities. If they had taken more of those chances on Wednesday, they could have made Barcelona sweat a bit more, but their defensive mistakes and poor finishing allowed the Catalan side to ultimately cruise to a 5-1 aggregate victory. Arsenal were better at the back in this game and barely gave Everton a sniff of goal. In fact, after some nervy clearances and questionable positioning early, Gabriel settled in for one of his better defensive displays in months. He was helped by Koscielny, one of the most important cogs in the Arsenal defensive machine, and it is not surprising they had their first league sheet in some time with him back in the side. Overall, it was a solid win for Arsenal, who have only lost once to Everton in their last 19 meetings.
2. The Bad: Arsenal will be happy with the victory, but might be upset with their offensive play in patches, as they could have easily scored more against a porous Everton defense. That they didn’t comes down to some sloppy playing from Iwobi on the counter (though he impressed overall as MOTM), from Sanchez for most of the game (again) and from Bellerin, who has been off his best for a few games now. To be fair, it was Sanchez who produced the seventh minute opener with a wonderful exchange with Ozil and then feathered cutback pass for the assist to Welbeck and it was Sanchez who pushed the team to press through most of the first half. But I still find the frequency with which he gives the ball away either through unsuccessful dribbles or sloppy passes troubling; along with his inability to put the ball in the back of the net for most of the season. Iwobi, of course, scored the opener, but needs to play with a little more poise overall, allowing his decision-making on the counter and around the box to match his talent. And Bellerin contributed with the assist for Iwobi but seems a little off his best moving forward while again leaving too much room behind, where Sanchez is less apt to cover. Barcelona and Watford punished those defensive lapses, but Everton were unable to. In this game, these critiques are really nitpicking though, as Arsenal put in their most complete performance in some time and now have a good foundation to remain in the Top 4 and maybe more, if Leicester and Tottenham both stumble. The bad is that is took them so long to rediscover the form that should have had them running away with the title, with all due respect to Leicester (the team they did beat twice this year). Potential injuries to Ozil and Ospina could also be deadly, but one assumes both are rather minor.
3. The Ugly: Everton are the most confusing side in the entire league this season, playing the best attacking football in the division at times but defensively weak and downright awful at home. This was their ninth loss of the season, with eight of those coming at home, against nine wins (four at home) and 11 draws. They have scored an impressive 51 goals, good for fourth in the division, but have conceded 41, the most of the “Top 12” and worse Watford, Crystal and and Swansea below them. One must question Martinez on why this team is not pushing for a European position with the talent they have, why they are so poor at home and why they have dropped so many points from winning positions this season. Their inconsistency has been the biggest problem in 2015-16, as seen this week, where they blew a 2-0 lead (and a missed penalty) against West Ham to ultimately lose 3-2, knocked a surging Chelsea out of the FA Cup and then were relatively flat today. The concern coming in was that the absence of the hard working fulcrum of their attack Barry would affect them on both sides of the pitch and that prediction came true. Barry leads the team in tackles, completed passes and is second in interceptions. After a relatively poor second season, the less than pacey Barry is actually leading the team in kilometers covered per game as well and his absence was clearly felt. But the lack of dynamism on attack meant that Everton barely created a chance all game, with the majority of their 8 shots (2 on target) from outside or just inside the box. They actually had more possession (54 percent), but did very little with the ball, with much of it coming in the second half, as Arsenal sat further back and largely played on the counter. The best chance of the game fell to Jagielka, with a free header from six yards out, but he sent it over and the threat, as with the season, was lost.
So I can finally get through an Arsenal write-up without any comment on Wenger. And I think, with the international break coming up, I shall allow our beleaguered manager to bask in his momentary reprieve. Roberto Martinez, on the other hand, is a man that needs to really think about his tactics if he is to reach toward elite status, as he seems to be moving backwards from the 72 points he earned in his first season in charge of the Toffees. He could add a second FA Cup to his resume with two more quality performances for his side, but the past two seasons have reminded of his last year in charge of Wigan, when they won the FA Cup but were relegated, predominantly because they could not keep the ball out of the net with enough consistency. Everton will have money to spend this summer with the infusion of cash their new majority owner should provide, but will have to try to keep hold of Stones and Lukaku and find an approach that addresses their defensive frailties.