At one point on Saturday, about 4:30 p.m., it looked as though the clash between Everton and Arsenal was going to be a real crunch tie. Everton were cruising to victory over a disinterested QPR side, while down in London, Arsenal were 1-0 down against Norwich.
But the Gunners' late fight back came with an unnerving sense of inevitability; they have scored more goals in the last 15 minutes of games than any side in England. With that late turnaround, the Toffees go to The Emirates knowing that only a win will do if they are to continue their push for Europe and the Champions League.
David Moyes, for the first time in recent weeks, has alluded to this himself:
"If we can go and win at Arsenal, you might say that we've got a chance of being involved in the Champions League.
If we don't, you'll probably say we've got a chance of making the Europa League. No matter what happens there, the players have given themselves a great chance." (from Evertonfc.com)
Everton have not just been clinging onto the heels of their more illustrious opponents as of late, they have been catching a few up. But the simple fact remains that as the games tick by, dreams of a Champions League spot are dwindling.
For Everton's season, this game is pretty much all-or-nothing, and it promises to be an intriguing battle between two of the Premier League’s in-form sides. Arsenal have won their last four games in a row, whereas Everton have won four and drawn one of their last five. Curiously, of Everton’s last five games, it is the draw that they can take the most from going into this one.
In that encounter, a 2-2 draw at Tottenham, the Toffees produced what was almost the perfect away performance. Almost.
If they can tweak a few things and learn from their mistakes, there is no reason why they can’t go one better here. Here’s how:
Close Midfield Gaps
David Moyes’s tactical plans for this game will no doubt centre around stopping Santi Cazorla. The Spaniard has been a tremendous signing for the Gunners, putting in high quality showings on a consistent basis since his arrival from Malaga.
Cazorla’s biggest asset is his lateral movement, which allows him to drift into pockets of space between the lines. Getting the ball in space, 25 yards from goal, Cazorla has the talent to change games with a wonderful pass or a precision finish.
The best way to shut him down is to close off this space. Of course, with players like Jack Wilshere, Mikel Arteta and Theo Walcott picking passes and buzzing about in similar areas, this is easier said than done.
Norwich did this to an extent in Arsenal’s last home game, but as the game wore on, Cazorla found space in more threatening areas on a more frequent basis. Take a look at the passes received by Cazorla in the first and second half of that game:
This late fatigue teams seem to suffer with against Arsenal is a product of their possession game. Everton will have to do a lot of pressing and a lot of running, so their players will get leggy as the game wears on. Moyes should not be scared to make substitutions early, injecting some freshness into the side to cope with the inevitable late Arsenal onslaught.
Expect Darron Gibson and Leon Osman to start deeper than usual, happy to surrender possession to the Arsenal midfield 40 yards from goal, but limiting the space between the lines.
Typically, Arsenal defenders do not like it “up and at ‘em.” With this in mind, Victor Anichebe should be desperate to get at this Arsenal back four.
This season, the Nigerian forward has been almost unrecognisable. Long gone is the sulky, laboured striker that infuriated Evertonians. At last, it looks as though something has finally clicked in him. In recent weeks, his performances against Manchester City, Tottenham and QPR have been absolutely fantastic.
The was a time when the ball would be played into Anichebe, he would miscontrol it and his head would go down. Now, whether played into his chest or into feet, it sticks to him. This season he has learnt how to use his powerful frame to his advantage; Anichebe has been devastating when he backs into defenders and he gets the ball played into feet.
Laurent Koscielney and Thomas Vermaelen will not be able to live with Anichebe if he can pin one of them down in dangerous positions. Everton did this well against Tottenham, getting the ball forward to Anichebe quickly with the Spurs full-backs pushed high up the pitch, meaning he was often one-on-one with either Michael Dawson or Steven Caulker.
More often than not, Anichebe was too strong for either of them, giving Everton an ideal platform to launch counter attacks from.
This tactic was a significant facet of a smart Everton game plan that involved playing on on the break. Its a tactic that they might look to use again in this one.
Smart Counter Attacking
The game against Tottenham represented the best Everton have ever counter attacked under David Moyes.
As I have already alluded too, the superb hold-up play by Anichebe allowed Everton to get up the pitch quickly and bring the likes of Kevin Mirallas and Nikica Jelavic into play.
To pick up a win at The Emirates, Everton will have to replicate that effort. Like Tottenham, Arsenal are a team who like their fullbacks to push on into advanced areas. While Moyes will expect Steven Pienaar and Mirallas to track back in the wide positions, they must be quick to spring forward when Everton turnover possession.
If Mirallas in particular can get in behind either Arsenal full-back and drag the centre-backs into uncomfortable positions, he has already shown the damage his devastating pace and lethal finishing can do.
Everton will see less of the ball than Arsenal, but must be brave and decisive when going forward. The Gunners will leave spaces, that is inevitable because of the way in which they play. Whether Everton can exploit these gaps is another matter entirely.
Aerially, Everton have a major advantage over Arsenal. This is a mismatch the Toffees have to try an exploit.
The Gunners conceded a very soft goal from a set play against Norwich, while Everton have been able to notch twice from corners in their last two outings. In Sylvain Distin, Phil Jagielka, Fellaini and Anichebe, Everton have players who can cause real problems from dead-ball situations.
Combine this with Leighton Baines’s wand of a left foot, The Toffees will be confident of fashioning some real opportunities from set-piece situations. Baines’s delivery has been fantastic as of late, with Everton looking to go noticeably deeper when putting corners into the box.
Against QPR, Sylvain Distin often peeled away to the back post from corners and won three headers, one of which set up Anichebe for his goal. Phil Jagielka scored from a back-post header on Everton's last visit to London. Arsenal will no doubt be wary of this and will be thankful Per Mertesacker is due to return from suspension. They will look to him to help counter this threat.
In Cazorla, Jack Wilshere and Mikel Arteta, Arsenal have some excellent ball players in the midfield area.
What they miss however, is an out-and-out holding midfielder. Of those three players, who is going to get about the pitch and break up the play? There isn’t really an obvious candidate. Arsenal’s midfield looks to defend through possession; if the opposition don’t have the ball, they can’t attack.
But when the opposition do have the ball the Arsenal aren’t the most switched on defensively. Jack Wilshere is still learning and can sometimes lack discpline in the deeper midfield role, whereas Mikel Arteta has never really been defensively sound. Everton and David Moyes will know this first hand.
Everton’s attackers can take advantage of this. With Steven Pienaar and Kevin Mirallas darting in from wide areas, and Marouane Fellaini’s physical presence, David Moyes will see this as an area in which Everton can get at Arsenal.
The timing and intelligence of attacking runs will be key, for Arsenal don’t have a player that has the defensive willingness to track them.
Arteta and Wilshere will try and cut off passing lanes into players behind them, but stopping Fellaini and Mirallas will prove to be a tough physical challenge, such is the respective power and pace the Everton men have at their disposal. With the subtle movement of Pienaar thrown in, the Toffees have genuine attacking quality at their disposal.
Everton will be looking for a big performance from Fellaini in particular. Aerially, he should be dominating the midfield, which could prove to be key in contest between two sides who have little width in the centre of the pitch. It looks set to be a congested midfield battle between some neat and tidy footballers, so Fellaini’s physicality could tip the scales in Everton’s favor.
If Everton are getting overrun in the midfield area, Fellaini is more than capable of dropping deeper and influencing proceedings. Look out for this if Everton come under heavy pressure.
Excited for the game? How do you see things panning out?
Let me know in the comments section or on Twitter @MattJFootball