Arsenal lost in the Premier League for the first time since the opening day of the season on Wednesday, ending an unbeaten run of 16 games. It was a disappointing way to end the unbeaten run, with Arsenal 1-0 up but seemingly unable to match Everton’s physical intensity. That they were unable to do so has raised the old questions of Arsenal’s mentality, but the real problem seemed to be several Arsenal players running out of energy.
That is not surprising. Tuesday’s game ended a run of 4 Arsenal games in 10 days, starting on the third against West Ham. Several Arsenal players played in each game, with three playing ninety minutes in each. Here’s Tuesday’s starting lineup, and the amount of game time accrued over the past 10 days:
Petr Cech: 270 minutes (DNP v Basel)
Héctor Bellerin: 155 minutes (DNP v West Ham, Basel, subbed on for Mustafi v Stoke)
Gabriel: 360 minutes
Laurent Koscielny: 360 minutes
Nacho Monreal: 270 minutes (DNP v Basel)
Francis Coquelin: 265 minutes (DNP v Basel)
Granit Xhaka: 360 minutes
Theo Walcott: 243 minutes
Mesut Özil: 342 minutes
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain: 230 minutes (DNP v Basel)
Alexis: 328 minutes
What is interesting is that it is the midfield where Arsenal struggled the most, though neither Gabriel nor Laurent Koscielny had stellar games. And it is the midfield that featured two of the heavier used players, Granit Xhaka and Mesut Özil. There isn’t necessarily a natural replacement for either; Özil is irreplaceable, and Mohamed Elneny is more suitable to replace Francis Coquelin, rather than Xhaka. The workload on both players, though, was increased on Tuesday because of Everton’s physicality and pressing and Arsenal’s lineup.
With Gabriel replacing the injured Shkodran Mustafi, Arsenal had one less ball-player from the back, and with the very direct Oxlade-Chamberlain and Walcott in the side, Arsenal effectively had three ball-players in the spine of the team: Koscielny, Xhaka and Özil. Indeed, Everton were happy to let Coquelin have the ball in the final third, where he was fairly ineffective, and concentrated on stopping Xhaka and Özil, who each playing the fourth game in ten days, were unable to meet the demand, doubtlessly affected by tiredness (which Wenger himself hinted at).
This could’ve been alleviated in several ways. Alex Iwobi, Mohamed Elneny and Olivier Giroud were all fresh, having been on the bench against West Ham and Stoke, with Elneny and Giroud also on the bench against Basel. Giroud would’ve enabled a more direct Arsenal side to work, Iwobi would’ve given Arsenal another creative ball-player in the side, and Elneny would’ve been better in Arsenal’s final third than Coquelin.
Arsenal, even with the absence of Aaron Ramsey, Santi Cazorla and Danny Welbeck, have a deep squad. Yet that squad will only come to fruition if Wenger uses his options correctly. It is not just a question of rotation, but also a question of rotating correctly, using the players that make sense tactically and for the game situation. On Tuesday, none of those things happened, and with half of the team playing more than their third and a half match in 10 days, a tired Arsenal succumbed to Everton’s physical pressure.