Our top four hopes took a significant blow with Sunday’s 1-0 defeat to Everton at Goodison Park. Phil Jagielka’s scrappy goal was enough to give the Toffees a deserved three points. All aspects of our performance were woeful and you would have thought Everton were the team fighting for an elusive Champions League spot. Momentum can often trump form, so I overlooked our abysmal away record before the game. Since our draw with Spurs, the team has had a swagger, freshness and authority culminating with a brief stint in third place. I assumed this momentum, coupled with the carrot of returning to third spot, would see our away form start to improve. It wasn’t to be.
Phil Jagielka’s goal on 10’ came after Lucas Digne’s long throw caused chaos in the box. Referee Kevin Friend (who had an awful game!), should have stopped play for a foul throw, but the calamitous piece of defending that followed was even worse. We have the best record in the league defending set pieces, so I’ll put this down to a blip. There was plenty of time to regroup and get back into the game, but we simply couldn’t match Everton’s tenacity.
Emery started 3421, with Guendouzi and Elneny in centre midfield. In hindsight this was the wrong system and it played right into Marco Silva’s hands who set Everton up to squeeze the pitch in the middle of the park. Idrissa Gueye, Andre Gomes and Gylfi Sigurdsson pressured the ball doggedly and Guendouzi and Elneny couldn’t live with their intensity. The antidote would have been to get the ball to stick out wide, but we weren’t good enough on the wings. Maitland-Niles and Kolašinac had their poorest games for a while. The second half switch to 4231, and the introduction of Aaron Ramsey, momentarily gave Everton something to think about. They responded well by occupying the new space on our flanks and should have finished the game with three of four more goals.
Emery needed stronger moments from his top players to help stem Everton’s impetus, and he didn’t get them. Lacazette wasn’t his usual sharp self. I think the clattering he took from Zouma early on affected him. Ozil was anonymous, and Mkhitaryan was only effective in spurts. Torreira’s competitiveness was a a big miss.
Even though the result was poor, the manner in which we lost such a critical game was more worrying. We are not getting it right tactically away from home and some players aren’t showing up. The stats show that we aren’t creative enough, compared to our peers on the road. Despite having the best goal conversion percentage home and away, we lag behind on attempts and big chances created. For a team so creative at home, this has to be part tactical. Emery is clearly trying to make us more resilient with the way we set up away from home, but maybe he needs to be less cautious. With tough away games against Watford, Wolves, Leicester and Burnley on the horizon, Emery needs to be bold. If we can improve our chance creation the firepower of Lacazette and Aubameyang should be too much for our remaining opponents.
Top four hopes
I’m more hopeful than confident that we will go on to secure top four. Sokratis picked up his tenth yellow card of the season so will miss the next two games. Its time for many members of this squad to show us they are made of the right stuff. This run in should be an audition for their future at this club.
Next up: Europa League Quarter Final against Napoli
Thursday’s Europa League tie against Napoli is just as important as our remaining league games. Napoli are second in Serie A with no chance of overtaking Juventus, so this is the defining game of their season. The savvy and pragmatic Carlo Ancelotti will not be afraid of the Emirates and Napoli will come expecting to secure a result. Hopefully Aubameyang and Ramsey coming back into the team will re-energise our belief. We are good enough to win this competition, and the players need to believe that.