All the Arsenal anticipation ahead of Everton’s visit was centered around a debut for Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and an Emirates bow for Henrikh Mkhitaryan. The home fans got exactly what they wanted, with record signing Aubameyang netting his first goal, while he and Mkhitaryan demonstrated that a season and a half apart has done little to weaken the telepathic bond they seemed to share at Borussia Dortmund.
As imperious as they were in attack, though, especially during a devastating opening 45 minutes in which Everton were blown away, equally pleasing for Arsene Wenger was the improvement Arsenal showed in their defensive duties.
Reflecting on the transfer window this week, Wenger admitted that his delight at securing Aubameyang and Mkhitaryan was tempered somewhat by the Gunners’ failure to reinforce what has proved again this season to be a ropey rearguard. Arsenal rarely fail to thrill in attack but so often in recent years have they been let down at the other end.
“Our defensive numbers aren’t good enough,” Wenger said when reflecting on Friday, with the 3-1 embarrassment at Swansea most fresh in his mind. “We needed strengthening because we have to improve our defensive numbers to make the top four.”
Wenger also pointed towards Arsenal’s ‘flexibility’ in defence – “we can play with a back three or four” – but the constant chopping and changing of systems and personnel has perhaps done more to exacerbate their problems rather than solve them.
Everton’s visit represented the first time all season that Wenger has been able to play his first-choice central defensive partnership for more than three games in successon. Indeed, this was the fourth consecutive game that they were flanked by Hector Bellerin and Nacho Monreal.
Mustafi and Koscielny have lined up together in less than a third of Arsenal’s 38 games so far this term. During those 12 matches, Arsenal conceded an average of 0.91 goals per game, compared to 1.26 in the other 26 matches. With the pair, Arsenal have a win ratio of 67 per cent. Without one or both, that ratio drops by 25 per cent. Quite simply, when Wenger can pick Mustafi and Koscielny together, Arsenal concede fewer goals and subsequently win more games.
But even in this procession against Everton, their defensive flow was interrupted by a couple of injuries, with Monreal failing to emerge for the second half, while Petr Cech sat out the last 20 minutes with a calf injury. Cech has never given Arsenal the presence he offered Chelsea for more than a decade but he remains a far more reliable pair of hands than David Ospina.
Arsenal have a week to get Cech and Monreal fit for the north London derby next Saturday because, as Wenger alluded to, they don’t have the strength in depth to face their top six rivals without their strongest defence. They have already shut out Spurs once this season, with today’s defence joined by Sead Kolasinac to form a back five. Wenger must decide whether to interfere again with a consistent defence that played the last four games or leave them be.
Ahead of that backline, though, Wenger is spoilt for choice and his attackers will go to Wembley full of confidence. That said, by way of preparation, they could not have hoped to face a bigger patsy than Allardyce’s Everton.
A brilliant performance from the team today! Creative, delightful, free-flowing football 😎🔥 I am feeling positive now for the upcoming challenges 👍🏼😉 #YaGunnersYa #AFCvEVE @Arsenal pic.twitter.com/3oH6GYheOi
— Mesut Özil (@MesutOzil1088) February 3, 2018
The Toffees boss spoke on Friday of his belief that because of the players Arsenal commit forward, “defensively they are weak”. That would have made the first-half demolition job all the more sweet for Wenger, given the previous needle between the two managers and the absolute wretchedness of Allardyce’s back three.
Debutant Elaquim Mangala showed the very worst of his Manchester City form while around him, his new team-mates made a total of three tackles in the first half as they failed to lay a glove on their hosts.
On the rare occasions Everton did break, they couldn’t capitalise on the weakness Allardyce thought he had identified. The Toffees managed once to give Theo Walcott a glimpse of the goal he had become so familiar with, but just as the door was opening, Mustafi slammed it shut with one of the best blocks of the season.
It was celebrated with the same zeal as any of the Arsenal goals, and the Gunners must realise by now that it is perfectly acceptable to take the same pride in their work around their own penalty area as they do in proximity of the opponents’.
As Wenger said: “It is about finding the balance… I must see how the idea I have works.” He has wasted numerous opportunities to reinforce his defence, but if he has finally settled on this system and who he wants to perform within it, then perhaps the blend that has eluded Arsenal is not as far away as many suspect.