If ever a side embodied the phrase ‘hit-and-miss’ it’s Everton.
The Toffees are as capable of beating Chelsea and holding Liverpool to a draw as they are of losing to Watford and Newcastle, oft times within the same three of four-week period.
And it’s that quality chief among all others that Arsenal must be wary of as they prepare for a trip to Goodison Park on Sunday.
Unai Emery’s side could come up against a side full of pace, intensity and technical quality as easily as they could face a side that rolls over to have its tummy tickled.
As it happens, Arsenal have a good recent record against the Blues, winning eight of the last 10 encounters, including three away.
But I’m not sure that will count for too much when the two sides resume hostilities on Sunday, particularly as Everton come into the match showing signs of improvement at last, with three wins and a draw from their last five Premier League matches.
For Arsenal’s part, they are in electric form, having won five and drawn one of their last six league matches. But playing away from home will provide a much different test for the Gunners, who have improved but still fail to inspire confidence on the road.
In many ways, it doesn’t really matter if they don’t play well away from home, as long as they are getting the points, but when you are looking for every possible advantage over your opponents, a reputation for fallibility on the road doesn’t help.
Emery and his coaching team have made great strides in toughing the Gunners up since the turn of the year, and they have started to provide a sterner test when away from the comforts of the Emirates, if not exactly breathtaking.
But, given how close the battle for a top four spot is becoming, Arsenal will be desperate for an important three points – especially in light of Manchester United’s mid-week defeat at Wolverhampton Wanderers.
They ought not throw caution entirely to the wind, however.
Three points is obviously the priority but a single point at Goodison would not be a disaster. Nothing builds momentum like a win but defeat can have equally as powerful an effect, particularly if it exacerbates our performance anxiety on the road.
We have tricky trips to Leicester, Watford, and Wolves to come and picking up points as we go is going to be vital. If we can take maximum points from those matches, so much the better, but it is unlikely we are going to be able to win every one of those, so ensuring we take something will be paramount.
As I’ve said before, given the strength of our rivals, we’re likely to need 75 points to secure our place in the top four this season, and that leaves us 12 points to find from our remaining seven fixtures.
If we assume maximum points at the Emirates against Crystal Palace and Brighton, they leaves us two wins to find from five matches on the road.
If we harbour serious ambitions of making it back into the Champions League, we have to believe that target is within our capability – comfortably so – but that doesn’t mean we can take anything for granted.
Victory at Everton would be a huge step towards that 75-point target (not an exact science by the way but an excellent benchmark given recent history) but we shouldn’t be too downbeat if we manage only a point.
Much will depend on how the Gunners set up and whether they can shake off the psychological trauma of being outside of London, but it certainly won’t hurt if Everton decide they’d rather be more miss than hit on Sunday.
Speaking to the press ahead of the match, Emery said:
on away form determining a place in the top four…
We are thinking game by game and we know we have five of seven matches away. For us it’s a big challenge, away [from home] we want to achieve the same good performances as when we play at Emirates Stadium. We have confidence now but we know it’s very difficult and I think it’s a long way until the last matches. We’ll think about each match coming, [get] the information on how we can take the next matches. Now, each match is worth three points, like Sunday against Everton, which is the most important. We know other clubs will take a lot of points.
on the discrepancy…
In all my career, I’ve felt and done the same [home and away]. It’s not just for me. I watched other teams and usually every team gets more points at home than away. After this, how can we take our performances and the best result away? It’s our challenge. The last matches in the Premier League – Tottenham and Huddersfield – we’ve had good performances and results, being competitive. We need to feel in our moment that we’re getting better and being competitive at home. We want to be the same away but we know that the difficulty is that in each match at home, they can feel better. Everton won against Chelsea and drew against Liverpool in their last matches at home.
on the run-in and the importance of the Everton game…
I am very realistic. We are in a good moment. It depends on Sunday as well, these three points, but now each match is very important for that. If we win, we are third. If we don’t win, we can’t hold this position. But football is each moment to enjoy, to prepare, to work, to play. It depends if we are efficient on the pitch. If we are – for 90 minutes – competitive, then I think we can achieve these three points. But it’s a long way to go and we need to be positive, but also realistic and the reality is that Sunday is a very big challenge and a very big opportunity now. We are going to continue in our way and Sunday is the first. I think the players are very, very focused for this match and for our moment.