Arsenal travel to Everton this weekend hoping to play with more assurance than they have produced in their first two competitive matches of the season against Crystal Palace and Besiktas.
That might be a tall order at Goodison Park, the scene of one of the club's heaviest defeats last season. The Gunners were beaten 3-0 by the Toffees in April, a result which—at the time—seemed to crush their hopes of UEFA Champions League qualification.
Manager Arsene Wenger's men eventually rallied, but on that day it was Everton boss Roberto Martinez who won the tactical duel. His decision to move centre-forward Romelu Lukaku to the right wing and play forward Steven Naismith in an attacking midfield role clearly caught the Gunners cold.
However, Everton's bid to go one better and secure a top-four finish this term has already been dented by a long-term injury suffered by midfield prodigy Ross Barkley. Without their young superstar, Martinez's men began their Premier League campaign with a 2-2 draw away at newly promoted Leicester City.
Before previewing this key early-season tilt, here's the full schedule information:
|Saturday, August 22||5.30 p.m. BST / 12.30 p.m. ET||Sky Sports 1 / NBC||Sky Go / NBC Sports Live Extra|
SkySports.com and IBTimes.com
Wenger Needs a Reshuffle in Midfield
An injury to ex-Everton star and nominal Arsenal holding midfielder Mikel Arteta is going to prompt some thinking from Gunners boss Wenger. The Frenchman is formulating a "creative plan" to cope with Arteta's absence, per Metro reporter Jamie Sanderson.
The obvious solution would appear to be to trust scrappy veteran Mathieu Flamini at the deepest position in the Arsenal midfield. Flamini is certainly tenacious in the tackle, although he lacks the positional discipline the savvy Arteta offers.
One other solution might be to adopt a more fluid, rotating midfield trio. In this scenario, moving Spanish playmaker Santi Cazorla back into the middle or introducing ageing schemer Tomas Rosicky might help.
Either one could combine with Aaron Ramsey and Jack Wilshere in a trio that switches positions and trades responsibilities at will. Wenger adopted this approach in Arsenal's second league game last season, when Arteta was injured.
That day, a trio of Cazorla, Rosicky and Ramsey produced some excellent combination play en route to a 3-1 away win over Fulham.
Whatever Wenger decides, Arteta's injury has put more focus on the need to seek reinforcements in midfield. Mirror reporter John Cross has suggested a move for Real Madrid's Germany international Sami Khedira could be revived.
In a separate report for The Mirror, Liam Prenderville has reported that Sporting Lisbon powerhouse William Carvalho is actually Wenger's preferred target.
If Everton swamp and overrun Arsenal in midfield, the way they did back in April, the calls for a marquee signing in this area will grow louder. But midfield isn't the only position Wenger ought to be concerned about ahead of the trip to Merseyside.
Calum Chambers vs. Romelu Lukaku
Ongoing fitness woes at the back are likely to see 19-year-old Calum Chambers once again deployed in central defence for the Gunners. That might put him in direct contact with Everton striker Romelu Lukaku.
It's a challenge Wenger believes Chambers can handle, per the London Evening Standard:
It is a big test yes, but it was a big test against Demba Ba on Tuesday night who was strong in the Premier League and he managed to do that very well.
Chambers has looked very capable at centre-back so far this season. But while Wenger is right to applaud the former Southampton prodigy's efforts in Turkey, Ba certainly caused Arsenal a few problems.
Gunners fans would be wise to expect Lukaku to do the same. His pace, power, height and clever movement make the 21-year-old Belgian star a constant menace.
Wenger is already well aware of the threat posed by Lukaku, per Daily Express reporter Anthony Chapman:
I like him very much. He has a good mixture of physical presence and technical quality.
I also like his attitude. His attitude is full of energy and desire, and it plays a big part in the success of a centre forward.
Meanwhile, Martinez has attempted to ease the expectations on a player who cost Everton a club-record £28 million, per Ed Aarons of The Guardian:
Sometimes when you pay a record fee and it’s a new player at the club there can be a lot of pressure because of the expectation and you don’t know how he’s going to adapt. But he is the opposite. We know Rom inside out, and the supporters know what to expect. He knows how much we appreciate and love him then I think that will take the weight off expectations.
How successfully Chambers and the Arsenal defence marshal Lukaku will go a long way to settling this game. The bad news is that the Gunners will also be without left-back Kieran Gibbs.
That means another start for Spaniard Nacho Monreal. He's the player Martinez exploited by starting Lukaku on the right side last season.
Don't be surprised to see the Everton chief adopt the same approach to see if Wenger has found a solution since the last meeting.
Don't Expect Much from Arsenal's Returning German World Cup Stars
The Gunners' patchwork squad is ready to be supplemented by the return of Germany internationals Mesut Ozil, Per Mertesacker and Lukas Podolski. The trio have been rested after their exertions at the 2014 FIFA World Cup.
However, Gunners fans shouldn't expect too much in the way of immediate impact from their returning stars. At least, that's according to Wenger's proposed plans, per Arsenal.com:
I will check of course today and tomorrow to see if they will be available for selection. That is a target I fixed to them to prepare to be ready for selection against Everton. Will I use the three? Certainly not because they lack competition but they might be included for Saturday.
Hopefully, at least one member of this group should be used. If Wenger has to make a choice, he should opt for Ozil. The Gunners have so far clearly lacked his flair and invention in advanced areas.
That's a point noted by Arseblog columnist Tim Stillman:
I think it’s reasonably obvious that there has been an Ozil shaped hole in the team in the first two matches as the Gunners have struggled to create. Part of this of course is down to a lack of sharpness in the players. Arsenal’s play relies a lot on synergy of movement and passing, an almost telepathic understanding of one another’s movements, as we saw demonstrated quite beautifully with Wilshere’s goal against Norwich and Rosicky’s versus Sunderland last season.
The biggest issue when Ozil's not around is that the speed of passing drops considerably. Because he sees a defence-splitting pass quicker than those around him, Ozil is able to convert pedestrian possession into a scoring chance in an instant.
Without his speed of thought, Arsenal are more reliant on Ramsey producing another stunning all-round display. It would also help if Cazorla delivered the kind of active, probing performance he is certainly capable of.
The biggest disappointment in Arsenal's early performances has been the absence of the stylish and free-flowing attacking football Wenger's squads are usually noted for.
What the Gunners do going forward will be more important than the state of things at the back at Goodison Park. Wenger would be wise to include Ozil at least for a time.
Even at this early stage of the season, this feels like a hugely significant match. Any defeat for Arsenal usually gets blown way out of proportion. Even if it was an unlucky 1-0 defeat away to Real Madrid, many pundits would gleefully accept their chance to ring the death knell for the Gunners' season and Wenger's career.
Will Martinez get the better of Wenger again?
However, there's no doubting what another heavy away defeat would do for the credibility of Arsenal's prospective title challenge this season. It certainly wouldn't be a positive boost for confidence or proof that things have changed from last season, following a £56 million spending spree this summer.
But the stakes are just as high for Martinez. Defeat to a top-four team would raise serious doubts about Martinez's ability to launch the Toffees into that bracket.
By the end of the game, a damning verdict likely awaits one manager.