Everton took a huge step toward the Champions League places on Sunday as they dismantled Arsenal by a 3-0 scoreline at Goodison Park, closing the gap to the Gunners to just one point in the Premier League table.
With the Toffees still having a game in hand, their top-four fate is now within their own control—though they look to have a substantially harder run-in than Arsenal over the final weeks.
Sunday, though, was all about giving themselves a chance to overhaul the Gunners, and they did that with a vibrant performance that was tactically disciplined yet fast-flowing, expressive and fluid in possession. Everton tore into Arsenal and refused to relent, and the end result was that they could easily have won by an even bigger margin.
For Arsene Wenger and his side, it was simply another in a disappointing line of heavy defeats against the top sides from which they are apparently incapable of taking any lessons on board for future games.
Arsenal came to Merseyside two months ago and were handed a lesson in midfield and forward play by Liverpool, ending up on the wrong end of a 5-1 scoreline. On Sunday, Everton produced an almost perfect replica of that performance by their local rivals to rip through Arsenal's flimsy midfield line and punish them with three goals without reply.
Wenger and Co. didn't appear to have learnt anything after that Liverpool thrashing as they allowed the same opposition time and chances soon after, though missed chances that time meant Arsenal ran out winners in the cup fixture.
And it wasn't just defensively that they had problems; Arsenal were impotent in that game as an attacking force and changed nothing for the next big game against Manchester United. That match ended 0-0 with the Gunners showing little desire and far less capacity to produce damaging attacks.
The weekend defeat at Goodison Park showed more of the same, with Arsenal completely blunt until the thrusting, powerful and pacy runs of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Aaron Ramsey were introduced around the hour mark.
It was far too late by then. The defeat was already in place—and Arsenal's problems this season were repeated yet again.
Wenger has, by looking at performances and results, done nothing about them whatsoever.
Team selection and tactics all wrong yet again from Wenger. My irrational feeling Arsenal would win, proved to be just that. Irrational.— Matt Law (@Matt_Law_DT) April 6, 2014
Wenger plays the same tactics every week regardless who we are playing. Martinez changes his style for each game & that's why they best us— Memz Dogi (@Memz_Dogi) April 7, 2014
How many times has Wenger be shown how to conduct tactics this season? Martinez gave him another free lesson— The Unlucky Ones (@LewisD28) April 7, 2014
Arsenal have conceded 40 goals now in the Premier League season. Half of those have come in just four away games: 6-3 at Manchester City, 5-1 at Liverpool, 6-0 at Chelsea and now 3-0 at Everton.
Those are the top five teams (along with Arsenal themselves). That's why Arsenal aren't in the running for the title, yet again, this season. That's why now even their long-standing status as a Champions League side hangs in the balance.
Games lost: four. Lessons learned: none, apparently.
Transitions and Spaces
Arsenal operate with a very clear 4-2-3-1 system. Mathieu Flamini and Mikel Arteta were the midfield double pivot, with what should be a creative, interchanging and dynamic trio ahead of that duo, but more on the attackers shortly.
With Flamini presumably supposed to be the more defensive, controlling player and Arteta the more expansive, possession-oriented creative influence, it should be a fine pairing to, if not outright control every match, at least be competitive.
It wasn't. Everton outworked them, won the ball and then time and time again, exploited huge gaps between the line of centre-backs and central midfielders. Win the ball, turn it over, pass it forward. That was Everton's plan, and they had the players in place to pull it off perfectly.
Just a quarter of an hour in, Everton scored the opening goal after exploiting that exact space between the two central pairings.
Martinez's decision to use Naismith as a deep centre-forward and have Lukaku breaking infield constantly worked a treat as the Belgian outmuscled, outpaced and out-thought left-back Nacho Monreal all match.
Arsenal never managed to figure out how to find a more solid shape against Everton—or against Liverpool, or against Chelsea—after losing the ball in midfield, with rapid transitions after turnovers in possession their undoing once more.
At Anfield, it was Wilshere caught in possession that led to a goal; at Goodison, Bacary Sagna suffered the same fate. It wasn't the only such occurrence in the game, though it was the most startling example of how Wenger's side failed to match their rivals in recovering and back-tracking.
Everton were most aggressive in getting forward in numbers, while Arsenal were pedestrian and static when the reverse happened until it was too late to make a difference.
Again, it's the same issues that have plagued the Gunners for much of the season, especially in the big matches against top-end rivals.
Penetration and Problems Against the Best
Arsenal's forward play and lack of runners beyond striker Olivier Giroud was well-documented in the draw with Manchester United, and it was again the case of same old story at Goodison Park.
The Gunners have scored 56 times this season, the joint fourth-highest in the league, but they are way, way behind the front three of Chelsea (65), Manchester City (84) and Liverpool (90).
Take a closer look at the goals distribution, per Statto.com, and we can see something of a clear pattern—Arsenal have 38 goals, second-highest in the league, against clubs in the bottom half of the table. That's almost 2.4 per game.
Against the top 10, they have managed just 18 in 17 games. That's 1.06 goals per game with just six wins from 17.
In fact, their overall performance against top-half sides is appalling this season; Arsenal are essentially in the place they are because of their exemplary record against lower-half teams.
A minus-nine goal difference against the top 10 showcases both their defensive fragility and their inability to take chances often enough, with a season-long total of 1.35 points per game against top-half opposition testament to their poor showings against the better teams.
Arsenal have taken an average of 1.2 points per game since start of Feb (10 matches). MCFC 2.1 (8); CFC 2.2 (10); EFC 2.3 (9); LFC 2.8 (10).— Karl Matchett (@karlmatchett) April 7, 2014
Given their run-in features fixtures against the likes of West Ham, Hull and Norwich City, Wenger will have to hope that those kinds of matches will see his team amass enough points to scrape home in fourth place—because their end-of-season form up until now certainly isn't going to cut it.