The two matches between Arsenal and Everton this season could hardly have been less alike.
The first, back in December, saw two new managers sat in the stands at Goodison Park watching the clubs they were about to take charge of, play out one of the most turgid games of the season. Carlo Ancelotti and Mikel Arteta might have been wondering what on earth they had got themselves into, but ast forward almost exactly two months and the return fixture at the Emirates had everything the previous one lacked. In 90 minutes, it showed how much has changed – and what has stayed the same – at these two clubs since the managers took over.
Everton took the lead with just 49 seconds on the clock, as Arsenal’s defence left huge gaps for Dominic Calvert-Lewin to volley in the opener. Calvert-Lewin is one of the first noticeable changes at Ancelotti’s Everton, having scored seven goals in nine games under the new manager. He had previously managed one in 20 under Ronald Koeman, three in 18 under Sam Allardyce, and nine in 48 under Marco Silva.
For a manager who has made his mark on the game as a result of his man management skills rather than tactical nous, the development of Calvert-Lewin shows there is no reason to be snobby about that as a skill. This was a squad that had £100m spent on it during the summer, and getting those players whose value suggested they had quality to start living up to it has been Ancelotti’s challenge.
Bukayo Saka was introduced at left back after only 18 minutes when Sead Kolasinac had to go off injured, and it was his outswinging cross that confounded the Everton defence, allowing Eddie Nketiah to tap in the equaliser. Saka had become a regular member of Arsenal’s first team squad under Unai Emery but the combination of Saka and Nketiah was all a result of Arteta’s management.
On loan at Leeds at the start of this season, Nketiah struggled for game time, managing only two starts under Marcelo Bielsa. Recalled back to Arsenal, it was expected that he would once again go back out on loan but Arteta chose to keep him at the club. Starting him in Arsenal’s past two Premier League games has shown Arteta is not afraid to bring in talented young players for expensive stars at the club, and Nketiah repaid that faith emphatically.
Arsenal took the lead in the 33rd minute through Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang latching onto David Luiz’s clever pass through the Everton backline. As he opened up his body to shoot past Jordan Pickford, the result felt like a foregone conclusion, such is his prodigious talent in front of goal. But the difference he has made to the team under Arteta is not based on his attacking ability. Previously, Aubameyang looked lacklustre off the ball, rarely tracking back to help teammates with their defensive duty. Now, his work rate has improved immensely. He has made 1.45 tackles per game under Arteta, compared to 0.76 a game under Emery, as well as six clearances in eight matches under Arteta compared to two in 17 under Emery.
His renewed defensive commitment also aids Arteta’s selection issues. Despite being best suited to the centre forward role where Arsenal have an abundance of players, upping his defensive game makes it much more feasible for Aubameyang to play in the wide left role which enables any of Nketiah, Alexandre Lacazette or even Gabriel Martinelli to play up top.
Everton’s equaliser before half-time and Arsenal’s third directly after it showed that there is still work to go for both these managers. Much of the industry that Everton had shown in the opening twenty minutes had dissipated so it was against the run of play that Richarlison was able to poke home a corner after Bernd Leno’s indecision. Arsenal looked like they had switched off and struggled to take assertive action as the ball bobbled around the box leaving them heading in at the break on level terms.
Yet Everton had not woken up enough to mark Aubameyang who had more than enough space to put the ball in the back of the net after the restart. Arsenal were lucky to get away with their own sloppiness and lax play as Calvert-Lewin spurned two good chances in the final ten minutes of the game. Arsenal’s attitude was typified by Mesut Ozil receiving the ball in a good position on the left hand side but instead of attacking to try and extend their lead, he stopped still with the ball until Aubameyang arrived to take it off him. The movement and drive seeped out of Arsenal’s play and the ball went back into the centre of the pitch, allowing Everton to press Arsenal’s defence. For all the progress evident in both sides, there are still some attitudinal cobwebs to be swept away.
In the end, Arsenal were deserved winners and once again demonstrated that perhaps the biggest change in the team under Arteta was the guts to fight for a game and hold onto it. Yet the improvements go beyond that, whether it is through Arteta’s bold selections or technical lessons. Whilst they still have a lot more to tighten up defensively, it certainly looks like the pieces are falling into place for Arsenal.
With Everton, it is perhaps less clear. For all of Ancelotti’s motivating qualities around individual players, most notably to Calvert-Lewin but also Mason Holgate, Yerry Mina and Richarlison, there is a lingering sense that this Everton team flatters to deceive. Since Ancelotti took charge only Liverpool and Manchester City have taken more points, but in that time Burnley are the only team above them that they have beaten. Time will tell for both managers – although at least for now, their matches are much more enjoyable to watch.
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