It’s been a tale of two Arsenal’s so far this season. On the one hand, dropping matches against other ‘big’ clubs, mostly on the road - Liverpool, City, United & Chelsea, plus falling victim of Brentford’s Premier League debut in their new stadium. Then there’s the rebuilt Arsenal. The Ramsdale-Tomiyasu-White-Smith Rowe squad that have helped the club climb from 20th to within a point of the top four. So as Arsenal head to Goodison Park which side will prevail?
Despite Thursday’s loss, the recent form favors Arsenal. The Gunners have 14 points from their last eight matches, while Everton sits 20th with just two points during that same stretch. At home is where Everton has found their success so far this year, picking up 10 points from seven home matches. Arsenal has seven points on the road so far but has failed to secure big road victories. Will the recent home and away form continue for these two sides or can Arsenal’s overall improvement this year finally see them pick up three points in a challenging atmosphere?
For this round of Premier League Q&A we’ve brought in Trent Nelson from SB Nation’s site on all things Everton, Royal Blue Mersey.
TSF: Everton are now in 14th place and just five points clear of the relegation zone. How secure is Rafa Benitez after the big midweek loss?
RBM: It has been a tough road over the last two months to be sure. The fans are frustrated, and it’s difficult to blame them. Amongst the players, I think there is still confidence that this team, even with the mistakes and injuries, will weather this storm and find themselves back in a better position as the second half of the present campaign approaches. As for Rafa and his staff, I believe the majority shareowner Farhad Moshiri when he says that the poor form can be traced back to those injuries that this team has been fighting through. Whether that take proves to be correct remains to be seen, of course. There is also the matter of the tactical mistakes he has been making which have directly contributed to the Blues’ recent struggles.
TSF: If Benitez stays on, how many points would he need to secure by January 1st to see him through to the end of the season? And looking at the schedule how realistic is that goal?
RBM: I think Rafa will stay on for this season at the least, but this squad does need some comfort from a handful of these matches coming up for them to even think of finishing in the top half of the table. There are 18 points up for grabs before 2022, starting with the match against Arsenal of course. With games against your Gunners, Crystal Palace, Chelsea, Leicester City, Burnley, and Newcastle United in that stretch, I think that at least three of those are sides that the Toffees match up pretty evenly against. On current form, if Everton can get even nine points from those six games we should consider ourselves lucky.
TSF: Let’s rewind to the summer, Everton have a solid squad, and bring in the likes of Demarai Gray, Andros Townsend, & Asmir Begović. Did the club sufficiently address the needs from last season?
RBM: Well, with the financial constraints that the team has been under, and is only now digging itself out of, Marcel Brands and Rafa did the best that they were able to. They did improve the squad, with at least three of the players, but these players are now shouldering more than was ever expected of them. With a healthy squad, Demarai Gray and Andros Townsend, I believe, slot in really well for this Everton side. Begović too has played well when he has had to, as this team’s replacement for Robin Olsen behind Jordan Pickford, and do not forget that Salomon Rondon was also acquired as well during the last window.
While Rondon has yet to work out for this side, the speed that Gray was demonstrating on runs earlier in the season, coupled with the wonderful crossing ability of Townsend, appeared to be precisely what this outfit needed. Pundits were raving that Gray might be the signing of the summer, and for a cut-rate price too. But the losses of key players across the pitch have shifted more responsibility upon Gray, Townsend, and Rondon than, I think, anyone anticipated when they were all brought in.
The issue with Everton as always is with quality squad depth - the starting XI when fully fit is good enough to cause anyone trouble. But when you scratch the surface, the gulf between the starters and the backups is vast, and when injuries force those bit-part players to get significant playing minutes, this is the result. Additionally, Rafa hasn’t been able to rest any of his key players, which compounds the problem. It has been difficult, but I think that with a healthy side, the team will be able to play like it was earlier on this season.
TSF: It all started out so well, four wins from the opening six rounds of the Premier League. How much of this switch in form is down to not being able to play their best XI versus something that fundamentally changed in their performance?
RBM: This is the question that continues to rattle around supporters’ heads, isn’t it? I think that there is some evidence that before the rash of injuries that took Dominic Calvert-Lewin, Yerry Mina, and the now-returned Abdoulaye Doucoure, the team was playing better and more confidently in general. They demonstrated less dependency on those two massive players, DCL and Richarlison, and were playing with more effective possession, not overall possession rate, than the team displayed last season. While this is hardly any comfort to the fans, I think that they understand, despite their audible frustration, that this side has been battling injuries, as well as form and a difficult schedule. As Everton gets healthier once again, we will all really see what they are made of and if this form they have been in continues.
TSF: What would you have said back in August if I would have told you that come December Everton’s leading goal scorer is Andros Townsend with five across all competitions?
RBM: I would have stated that we either have developed a very balanced attack under our new boss or that injuries had wracked us across the preceding months. In many ways, regarding injuries, it is all quite similar to the way that this team performed during the final months of last season under Carlo Ancelotti.
TSF: It’s now seven losses in the last eight league matches. If you are the manager ahead of the Arsenal game, how are you changing the lineup and/or formation to get a reaction from the players?
RBM: Benitez has been lining Everton up in a 4-4-2 which is not dissimilar to the 4-4-1-1 that Mikel Arteta has been using at Arsenal. The manager’s stuborn belief that Salomon Rondon will finally come good has been confounding, and while he had his best showing yet in a blue shirt in the derby, he should not be starting any games for Everton.
Arteta saw his side overwhelmed by Liverpool’s 4-3-3 and Benitez learned nothing from watching that hiding, choosing to go with the same formation and then seeing his side lucky to be only 2-0 down at the twenty-minute mark. If Arteta is going to be stubborn about continuing to use that formation, then a smarter version of Rafa should really go with a 4-3-3/4-5-1 with Fabian Delph anchoring the midfield and letting Allan and Abdoulaye Doucoure run free ahead of him. That also puts Townsend and Gray in the wide positions where they are most effective and Richarlison up top.
There is a concern that Richarlison doesn’t play his best when in the sole striker role, but depending on the game flow Rafa could then revert to a 4-4-2 with Gray joining Richarlison up top and possibly Anthony Gordon coming on as a wide midfielder. Heck, if Alex Iwobi decides he wants to show up against his former side, throw him on too!
TSF: Everton have too much talent to be a real relegation contender, but if they finish say 12th or lower, is there a genuine chance they could lose players like Richarlison and Dominic Calvert-Lewin this summer?
RBM: Sure. I think that there is genuine interest in Calvert-Lewin from teams across England, including Arsenal, and as his profile continues to grow he will want to be competing at the highest possible levels, wherever that may be. For Richarlison meanwhile, I think that PSG have already shown interest in him as a replacement for Kylian Mbappe.
No matter where in the table Everton finish though, the Blues will have to sell a couple of big-name players to be able to fund a proper rebuild. Atrocious spending and lack of European football mean that Everton are riding the finest of margins with Premier League Profit & Sustainability regulations and there simply cannot be spending of any nature without selling first.
TSF: And I have to ask about Alex Iwobi, whose Wikipedia image is still in an Arsenal kit. This is his third season at Everton and I think it’s fair to say the first two have been disappointing. Iwobi already has two goals (which was his total for both prior seasons), could there be a real chance for him to help kickstart a turnaround for Everton? And what is the overall opinion of him from the Everton fans?
RBM: I remember when that deal was announced; I was quite excited at the time and thought that he would be able to continue on the trajectory he appeared on before he left north London. That, as you stated, has not happened, and while I would like to be able to say that there is a chance that he gets it turned around on Merseyside, I am not the optimist in this scenario. I think Anthony Gordon has a better shot at breaking out this season than Iwobi, and I think that for the Toffees and for his own career, a divorce, if possible, would be best.
Many supporters believe him to have been a disappointment, having not bloomed further under any of his three Everton bosses. The last two, in particular, are quite capable of getting the best out of their players, and for him to have foundered under both is certainly additionally frustrating.
TSF: What formation should Arsenal expect Everton to use in this match and who is in your predicted starting XI?
RBM: Rafa Benitez has been utilizing a bevy of formations this season, including the previously mentioned 4-4-2, 4-4-1-1, and 4-2-3-1 as well as the 3-4-3 and 4-3-3 in the earlier games of the year. With that said, I think that whatever Everton’s shape, the lineup will consist of the same players as were previously seen in the Liverpool loss. I think that it’s entirely possible that the team could set up in the same shape of 4-4-2, however. Therefore, I’ll say that it’s Pickford; Digne, Keane, Godfrey, Coleman; Gray, Allan, Doucoure, Townsend; Richarlison, Rondon
TSF: And finally, give us your prediction for how the match will go.
RBM: Those nine or so points have to come from somewhere if Everton are going to get them by the New Year, and coming off of the midweek losses that both teams suffered, I am going to say that Everton get the shock victory by a score of 2-1 over the rising Arsenal.
There is a small matter of a fan protest that Arsenal fans should be aware of, however. Tempers have boiled over in the fanbase following the derby defeat, and questions are being asked of the Board regarding their role in this entire debacle. This is the 27th season of Everton football since the Toffees last lifted a piece of silverware, and to mark that, a walkout is being planned at the 27th minute of the Arsenal game by most influential supporters groups to show the Board the fans’ dissatisfaction. This may or may not mar the game, but if the stands at Goodison Park seem to empty at that point of the game, you will know why.
Thanks to Trent and Royal Blue Mersey for taking the time to speak with us ahead of the match.