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Unai Emery still seeking balance as Arsenal flatter to deceive against Everton

Unai Emery has a difficult decision to make; otherwise, he could be stuck with the same systematic failings.

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Arsenal have won four games a row in the Premier League, but for a fourth straight game, the Gunners did not make it easy. Arsenal have not led a Premier League game until the second half, and had Everton, especially Theo Walcott, been sharper, Arsenal may have been too far behind to dig out a win. Indeed, Everton “won” the match in terms of expected goals, and the general performance should be concerning; Arsenal have not started a match well all season.

Much of Arsenal’s issues come from a lack of balance, a recurring issue throughout the Emery era. This was coupled with Emery anticipating that Everton would press high up the pitch. Arsenal were more direct than usual on Sunday, and that is perhaps why the crowd was less agitated, with Sokratis, in his brief time on the pitch, going long more often than he has thus far this season.

Granit Xhaka passes vs. Everton

That manifested in Arsenal’s defensive players having a lot of the ball, in direct opposition to the attacking players: Granit Xhaka, Lucas Torreira, Shkodran Mustafi and Nacho Monreal had more passes than Mesut Özil, and Rob Holding and Petr Cech had more passes than Aaron Ramsey, Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. Part of the issue with Arsenal trying to play longer is how it resulted in a 4-2-4 shape, with Xhaka and Torreira either having to play square or play longer passes into the front players which were, especially in the first half, frequently cut out.

Lucas Torreira passes vs. Everton

The result was that Arsenal struggled to play in Everton’s half, and struggled to complete passes in the half spaces in front of Everton’s defence, the areas where Emery particularly likes his teams to play, and where Arsenal have had some success this season. Dependent on long passes, which doesn’t really suit their game, Lacazette, Aubameyang, Ramsey and Özil were starved of service. Indeed, one of the few good Arsenal moves in the first half, which ended with Nacho Monreal’s shot, began with Aaron Ramsey coming deep into his proper position, central midfield, and collecting possession from the centre halves. Ramsey then played into Lacazette, who combined with Özil, who had a run from Bellerin to find. Bellerin had targets, including Ramsey, whose run was unmarked, having come from a deeper position.

The build-up to Nacho Monreal’s 12’ chance

The second half began much as the first, with Everton in the ascendency, and Arsenal’s positioning unclear. Indeed, early on, Lee Dixon remarked upon the absence of anyone in Arsenal’s central midfield: Torreira and Xhaka had dropped deep, into the defensive line, the fullbacks were playing as wingers, and the attacking four were instructed to play on the shoulder of Everton’s defence to try and stretch play, rather than build from the middle, which would’ve seen Ramsey or Özil come into a deeper position, as they’re wont to do. Instead, Arsenal depended on longer passes or winning the ball higher up the pitch, and it was the latter that saw Lacazette’s opening goal. Two minutes later, and Arsenal’s attacking salvo was complete; enough to see the game in their favour, but not enough to deliver a convincing attacking performance, with very little happening in the attacking third.

Arsenal’s passes vs. Everton. Note the absence of passing in the spaces above the Everton penalty box.

At times, it felt as if Arsenal were split into two separate units, attack and defence, without middle ground. In part, this is a tactical decision from Emery, who has been able to make adjustments in the second halves of matches. But Emery has still not managed to balance the side, and in part, it comes from trying to fit everyone in, and then play players out of position: Aaron Ramsey is a #8, not a #10, Mesut Özil is not a right-sided player, Aubameyang is not a left-winger. Aside from Lacazette, the attacking players were all out of position. At a certain point, Emery will have to either drop one of them, or choose a different system. Otherwise, what has been a trend, unconvincing performances, supported by subpar statistical results, will become the mediocre norm, unless Emery can find the balance he has spent all season seeking.