The blueprint for how to beat Arsenal
Most of the Everton players were back inside the dressing room, enjoying the unfamiliar taste of victory, but Amadou Onana was only at the start of his personal lap of honour.
Walking slowly around a vibrant Goodison Park after full-time on Saturday afternoon, the Belgian midfielder blew kisses to the home supporters and thumped the badge on his chest, luxuriating in the praise he was receiving from the Everton faithful.
It had been a breakout performance from the 21-year-old, who was fully deserving of the affection he received from the stands. No player had done more to disrupt Arsenal, the league leaders, and no player this season had looked so assured against Mikel Arteta’s swarming group of young stars.
It is little wonder, then, that Onana was among the midfield options that Arsenal were considering in last month’s transfer window. The Belgium international cost £33 million when he joined from Lille in August, and it seems Everton can already expect to make a decent profit on him — when that time comes.
Onana is a young player of remarkable physicality and energy, and he blends it with technical class. In the 58th minute of the match, he spun away from Thomas Partey, the league’s standout defensive midfielder, with a delicate pirouette that would not have looked out of place in the Champions League knockout stages. A few seconds later, Partey was substituted.
The relentless energy of Onana, and his midfield partners Abdoulaye Doucoure and Idrissa Gueye, was perhaps the most significant factor in the victory for Sean Dyche’s side over Arsenal on Saturday. Worryingly for Mikel Arteta, it might even have provided a blueprint for the rest of the division as they look to stop the league leaders in the coming weeks and months.
To succeed against Arsenal, it seems, you need to have legs in midfield. Or, in the case of Doucoure and Onana, especially long legs. With Gueye darting alongside them, the Everton midfielders were strong and fast enough to cover the ground, and technically brave enough to keep the ball once they had won it back. Throughout the whole match, Gueye did not misplace a single pass.
There are certain areas of the pitch in which Arsenal do their most dangerous work. Martin Odegaard, for example, thrives in the pockets of space between the opposition’s midfield and defence. Everton’s three midfielders were mobile and energetic enough to constantly close down these spaces, shuttling across as one and denying Odegaard the space he craves.
It was a sign of Everton’s intentions that Vitalii Mykolenko, their left-back, committed the first foul on Odegaard after less than two minutes of play. The challenge briefly left Odegaard without a boot. Everton’s midfielders took their lead from that, harrying and pressing the Arsenal captain until the end. Odegaard, usually such a calm presence on the field, was visibly frustrated in the second half.
For Dyche, the performances of his midfielders will provide the most encouragement. No Everton player had more touches than Onana. No player won possession more times than Gueye. No player made more interceptions than Doucoure. Between them, as can be seen from their combined heatmap (below), they squeezed the space and covered the pitch.
The evidence of 2023 suggests that midfield mobility is the greatest threat to Arsenal’s slick passing game. The only other team to claim points from Arteta’s side since the turn of the year are Newcastle United, who also approached their match against Arsenal with a set of commanding and energetic players in the heart of the pitch.
In Newcastle’s goalless draw at Arsenal in January, the rangy Joe Willock and Sean Longstaff did the midfield legwork, with Joelinton also contributing with his physical heft and willingness to scrap. As with Everton, it led to an interrupted game in which Arsenal could not find their usual passing rhythm.
Clogging the midfield is, of course, easier said than done. But it certainly seems worth the effort for Arsenal’s opponents, especially when compared to the alternative. Tottenham Hotspur allowed themselves to be outnumbered in central areas in the north London derby, and they were picked apart with ruthless ease by Odegaard and his team-mates.
For Arsenal there is only one obvious solution: take Plan A, and make it even better. Sharper running and more incisive passing is required to unpick these opposition midfields. Perhaps Jorginho, who made his debut on Saturday after joining from Chelsea last week, will help in that regard.
This defeat was no disaster, and Arteta was far from infuriated at the end. But Arsenal need to ensure it is only a blip, and to do so they will need to find different ways around — or indeed through — a packed opposition midfield.