Rarely will two teams walk away from a 1-1 draw happy with the result, but you could very nearly saw that was the case between Arsenal and Everton this week.
The Gunners will be happy that they picked up a point from what was a very tough match (both on paper and in reality) and extended their lead on top of the Premier League ladder. Everton will be ecstatic that they were able to go to the Emirates Stadium and dominate the Londoners for large portions of the match—justifying their own credentials for a top-four finish this season.
Arsenal's title credentials also remained perfectly intact.
For two sides that possess such brilliance in midfield and technically sound players, it was somewhat surprising that the two goals appeared from seemingly "nothing" situations.
Having said that, there's still plenty to be learned from the game film, so let's take a look at what unfolded on the night and in particular, highlight two key attacking aspects from both clubs.
Arsenal's Attack Force Compression, then Split with Width
Much has been made this season about the role that players like Mesut Ozil, Jack Wilshere and Aaron Ramsey have played in making the Gunners' so potent.
There's good reason for that, too.
Yet what's been most interesting to note is not the role that these players are playing this season but rather the style of play that has allowed them to play the way that they do. Arsenal's attack has adjusted in its speed and quickness in moving the ball, and what that's done is give attacking players more freedom to isolate fullbacks and split open opposing defenders.
It's a generalization, but the vast majority of Arsenal attacks in years gone by would slowly work their way around midfield through the likes of Mikel Arteta.
Wilshere, if he felt so inclined, would help out and push it through to attacking midfield with plenty of quick passes, short triangles and passing movement.
It worked for Arsenal because they had the individual talent required.
Yet what the Londoners have done this season is slightly adjust their game-plan to also include plenty more width than it did before. They've made their attacking fullbacks even more important and given guys like Ozil and Wilshere more freedom to roam the wide areas because they know that, in time, the ball will eventually meet them and they'll be able to run freely into space.
The passing game has not changed; there's still plenty of quick triangles and lots of strength in midfield—which is how opposing defenses line up against them.
Defenses were compressing on Arsenal.
Now the Gunners are using their width to exploit them once more, and what that does is make their attack much more potent—almost like a double-punch.
On one hand, their individual skill and triangular work is so good that you can't afford to give them space in the middle. Wilshere's goal against Norwich City was proof of that; the Gunners are simply too talented that they will, eventually, create an opening through the middle.
Defenses must leave at least one man screening the back four at all times.
Yet on the other hand, Arsenal's width—particularly in attacking areas—means that they continue to catch out compressing defenses. And that was certainly something that happened in this one, as the Gunners finally started to take advantage of Everton's pressing.
In the first 35-40 minutes, the Toffees were the better side. They pressed heavily in defense—particularly on Arsenal's central midfielders—and they drew about mistakes.
They compressed in defense.
Yet throughout the second half as Arsenal's attack began to grow in impetus, their width started to become more and more of a deadly factor. Their goal itself came from a cross that was whipped from the left wing to the right post and then played back across to the left post; an even better attacking chance, however, is shown in the image below.
Prior to this shot, Arsenal's attack moved the ball in two passes from left to right. In one pass it was back to the middle of the field. Then it went left, middle, left, middle, and right. We pick up the image with the ball on the right, and about to be played to the left once more.
Due to their constant use of width, look how compressed Arsenal has made the Everton defense—so much so they have men unmarked at the edge of the box.
One of these men ends up winning the cross and (unsurprisingly) playing it back across goal for Santi Cazorla to win an unmarked header inside the six-yard box.
Had he been able to get more power on the shot, it's likely that it wouldn't have flown straight into Tim Howard's hands and this would have been the first goal of the game. Truth be told, it's actually a better chance than the one that was somewhat hopefully into the box for Theo Walcott to try and create something with. And the reason why is all about width.
How to defend against such width is another article all together.
If you commit to the middle, they'll hurt you by stretching the play. If you don't compress the middle, they have the ability to play right through the centre.
It seems so simple yet so difficult at the same time.
Barkley's Brilliance Exposes Arsenal's Eagerness
We mentioned above that Arsenal's attack has changed a little this season, so it's also worth noting that their defense has changed a little this year as well.
You might not have noticed it but the Gunners are tackling a lot, lot more. Look at the table below (stats provided via Squawka) in terms of the total tackles attempted and completed per game for Arsenal, and what that would look like over the course of a season.
|2012/13 Season||2013/14 Season|
|Completed (per game)||15.5||15.5|
|Attempted (per game)||19.7||33.3|
|Completed (after 15 games)||233||233|
|Attempted (after 15 games)||295||499|
|Total tackle success rate||79 percent||47 percent|
Statistics provided via Squawka
As you can see, the evidence is damming.
Part of this is no doubt down to the confidence that the likes of Ramsey, Mathieu Flamini and Wilshere have in the middle of the park. They're playing well, their passes are coming off, so every time they lose the ball there's a sense that they think they can win it back every single time.
Yet not every time can they win it back, and the Gunners were exposed in terms of this "confidence" through some sensational dribbling by Ross Barkley.
Dribbling which cost them two competition points.
The image below shows two midfielders either side of Barkley as he's about to receive the pass. Their eagerness allows him the chance to turn, ride the fowl, and then press forward towards the Arsenal goal—desperate to try and find an equalizer. It's here that the Gunners need to recognise the situation, hold off him, and then allow the attack to work itself out.
For the most part, Arsenal's defense had handled whatever the likes of Kevin Mirallas or Romelu Lukaku threw at them on the night, so it's not too much of a call to expect them to hold off tackling here.
But they can't help themselves and another one-out tackle comes in, which exposes plenty of space in behind as Barkley beats the challenge and passes out wide.
It's here that Arsenal's defense starts to come under pressure.
Kieran Gibbs out on the left flank knows that the cross is coming in and that he has a man to mark, but there's some hesitance there. Lukaku has Laurent Koscielny isolated in a one-on-one while Per Mertesacker is seemingly a little exposed by some direct-running Toffees' players.
He opts to push in just a little tighter—hoping to snuff out the cross and help out his central defenders—and that allows the cross to run through to Gerard Deulofeu.
In the end, the few feet of space that Gibbs allowed the Barcelona loanee would be all that he needed to blast the ball into the goal and cost the Gunners two points.
It's a minor thing, but it's one worth watching out for again this season.
Arsenal's confidence is certainly a good thing—particularly in terms of their pressing and willingness to win the ball back—but they can't do it at the expense of causing their defenders to second-guess themselves because they are under pressure at the back.
Their midfielders, in particular, need to temper their assertion.
As good as the intentions of that assertion might have been.
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