In the end, it was an old-fashioned, even classic ‘One Nil to the Arsenal’ performance in Piraeus against Olympiacos, of the kind that many Arsenal fans thought they might never see again, especially away in Europe. And so, part two of Mikel Arteta’s most testing week so far as Arsenal manager ended as satisfactorily as part one, the 4-0 Premier League home victory against Newcastle United last weekend. However, now comes the third and hardest part, namely Sunday’s home match against Everton, in which the managerial novice, Mikel Arteta, will pit his wits for the first time against an acknowledged old master of the game, Carlo Ancelotti.
Carlo Ancelotti Lies in Wait for Mikel Arteta
Everton Will Be Fresher Than Arsenal
Probably the biggest difficulty that Arteta and Arsenal will face against Everton is preserving the team’s fitness and, above all, freshness. The reason that the Everton match looks so tricky is precisely because Everton, who are not in European competition (something that Carlo Ancelotti has already said he wants to rectify as soon as possible, hopefully starting this season), did not have a game in mid-week. Indeed, by the time they play Arsenal, it will be more than a fortnight since their last game, an ultimately comfortable 3-1 home win against Crystal Palace, which was just the latest entry in Ancelotti’s impressive and impressively early run of results since he became Everton manager.
Because Everton will undoubtedly have had more rest than Arsenal before the game, that could bolster them in what is likely to be the kind of classic away performance – indeed, the kind of performance that Arsenal gave against Olympiacos in the Europa League – that most teams, barring the very best (which neither Arsenal nor Everton are yet), hope for. That will almost certainly involve getting nine or even ten men behind the ball as quickly as possible, especially at the outset, but also being prepared to counter-attack as quickly and ruthlessly as possible when the chance presents itself.
Everton Also Have the Attackers to Threaten the Gunners
Carlo Ancelotti certainly has the attacking players for such a classically Italian approach (and that is meant as a compliment and not an insult). Indeed, two of them used to play for the Gunners. They are, of course, Theo Walcott, who still has the raw pace to test any team on the break, and Alex Iwobi, who, like Walcott himself, has hardly made Arsenal regret selling him to Everton but who, nonetheless, has the ability to hold the ball and create chances that can be essential in an away game, when his team are likely to have less of the ball than the opposition.
However, the biggest Everton threats by far to Arsenal are the two strikers, or one-and-a-half strikers, who have done so much to maintain the team’s rise under Ancelotti, which has rapidly taken Everton from the relegation zone to the fringes of European contention. The first is Richarlison, the uniquely un-Brazilian winger/striker whose greatest asset is his heading ability, which is still the single biggest deficiency at the heart of the Arsenal defence, as was evident even against Olympiacos. The second is the rejuvenated Dominic Calvert-Lewin, who is finally showing both the power and the finishing ability that were the hallmarks of Duncan Ferguson, Ancelotti’s right-hand man at Everton and the coach who began the Everton renaissance after Marco Silva’s departure.
Arteta Will Already Be Planning to Counter Everton’s Strengths
In those four attackers (all of whom may not play, of course, especially from the start), Everton have the pace, the trickery and the firepower, particularly aerially, to threaten Arsenal, even at home. So it will be up to the managerial newcomer, Mikel Arteta, to choose personnel and adopt tactics to try and negate those threats. Fortunately for Arsenal fans, all the signs from his early tenure so far are that Arteta will have already recognised the challenges that lie ahead and will already be making plans to respond to them.
Indeed, he may well have begun his planning for the Everton match before the Olympiacos game. A slight illness for Lucas Torreira and the imminent birth of Mesut Ozil’s first child meant that neither midfielder travelled to Greece. Given the relative weakness of the Greek team, Arteta would not have pushed for the Uruguayan to make the long European trip. Assuming that Torreira has recovered sufficiently and that Ozil is not still anxiously waiting to become a father, both men are likely to return against Everton and that will immediately boost the Arsenal midfield, both in tackling ability and passing ability.
In particular, Torreira and Ozil, along with all the other Arsenal players, especially those in midfield, must protect the ball. The single best way for the Gunners to prevent Everton counter-attacking is not to lose the ball in the first place, especially at the back or at the base of midfield. As a skilful, committed central midfielder himself for both Arsenal and Everton, Arteta knows that he must cut off the supply line to the Everton attack as much and as quickly as possible.
Arsenal Have Improved Defensively and, Finally, Offensively
If Arsenal can restrict the supply of chances to Richarlison and Calvert-Lewin, which in turn means restricting the supply of loose balls in midfield or defence that the likes of Walcott and Iwobi thrive on, they will go a long way towards maintaining their recent defensive improvement. Indeed, after the Olympiacos win, it is now three clean sheets in a row for Arsenal, which would have seemed utterly unthinkable under Unai Emery and the dog days (dog decade?) of Arsene Wenger.
If Arsenal can make it four clean sheets in a row against Everton, and that is obviously a big if against a player like Richarlison whose ability in the air genuinely bears comparison with Virgil van Dijk (currently the best header of the ball in football) and even with John Charles (probably the best ever header of a ball in football history), their own forwards can win the game for them. That is because the most pleasing part of Arsenal’s past week has been the re-emergence of the team as a major goal-scoring threat.
Against Newcastle, the new ‘Fab Four’ (well, potentially fairly good four at least) of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Nicolas Pepe, Ozil and Alexandre Lacazette all scored, and Lacazette got another goal against Olympiacos, although he should arguably have had at least one more against the Greeks. After what has been effectively a season-long scoring drought for everyone in the team other than the seemingly always potent Aubameyang, that is a welcome change of form and fortune. Gunners fans will certainly be hoping that their strikers, wingers and attacking midfielders can maintain that improvement against Everton, albeit that against an Ancelotti team it is extraordinarily unlikely that any opponent will ever score four.
And so the stage is set for the third act of Arteta’s most important week in his brief reign as Arsenal manager. The results from the first two games in this mini-trilogy will have encouraged the Spaniard, as Arsenal are finally exhibiting both improved defensive strength and renewed scoring capability. Nevertheless, the relative novice Arteta knows that he faces a major challenge against an unequivocally great opponent, Carlo Ancelotti, who is probably Everton’s biggest single threat, even if he cannot actually take to the field.