After losing to Watford and Barcelona, a short turnaround to face Everton at Goodison Park probably wasn’t high on the list of things Arsenal wanted to do at the end of a challenging week. Despite the Toffees’ struggles at home this season, they went into the game off the back of a stirring performance in the FA Cup against Chelsea and had an in-form striker ready to pounce on any fragility in Arsenal’s defence.
But the Gunners were able to take the positives that came from defeat in the Nou Camp on Wednesday and play with a freedom and expression that has been missing for a lot of the season. With a refreshed front-line including Danny Welbeck and Alex Iwobi, who had performed encouragingly against Barcelona, Arsene Wenger’s team played some lovely attacking football and took control of the match in the first half. Too often this season, the opposition has been allowed to gain a foothold in a match against Arsenal, but on Saturday, the Gunners took control of proceedings early on and didn’t give the hosts much of a sniff to get back into it.
They were helped by a nervy Everton side who looked to be carrying a lot of pressure on their shoulders, in stark contrast to the way they’d gone after Chelsea in the previous week, and the early Arsenal goal only served to ramp up the nervousness and negativity around Goodison Park. While there were times that the defending could have been better, there wasn’t much Everton could have done about Arsenal’s opening strike as it was reminiscent of the goals scored with regularity in Arsene Wenger’s best days as manager back in the early 2000s.
There was some patient build-up play before Alexis Sanchez injected some pace into the attack and played an excellent one-two with Mesut Ozil. The Chilean then slid a ball through the hole in the defence that his movement had created, allowing Danny Welbeck to take the ball round the advancing goalkeeper and roll it into the net.
Arsenal could have extended the lead moments later when Alexis won possession back high up on the pitch and Alex Iwobi was subsequently only able to shoot straight at the goalkeeper from the edge of the box. There were other moments of intricate attacking play involving Iwobi and Welbeck as the Gunners suddenly seemed to have confidence coming back into their play. They also should have had a penalty when Alexis was fouled twice in the same movement in the box by Besic and Funes Mori, but Mark Clattenburg somehow decided it wasn’t a penalty.
Just as Everton looked to be building a bit of momentum towards the end of the first half, the Gunners struck on the break. Hector Bellerin was able to play a fantastic pass into space over-the-top of the Everton defence for Alex Iwobi to sprint clear. In his first Premier League start, he showed composure to draw the goalkeeper and slide the ball under him into the net.
Iwobi has brought a freshness to the team and the enthusiasm of a player that hasn’t been scarred by the failings of the team this season. Theo Walcott and Joel Campbell are going to find it hard to get back into the team before the end of the campaign if Iwobi continues to play as he has done in the last week with the Nigerian’s link-up play looking good with the others in the front four.
Iwobi, Welbeck, Ozil and Alexis were also helped on Saturday by the reassuring solidity of Arsenal’s midfield. Mohamed Elneny kept his place in the side and, alongside Francis Coquelin, snuffed out a lot of Everton’s attempted moves forward and limited the supply to Ross Barkley and Romelu Lukaku. Having two more conservative players in the centre of the field was perfect for a difficult away game as one at Goodison Park, and it freed up the front four to create some havoc going forward.
It does feel like Arsene Wenger has stumbled upon a winning combination in midfield and attack, much in the way that he did with Coquelin and Cazorla last season, but it’s a shame it’s taken so long for this to happen. It’s not been for a lack of trying from the manager as he’s tried Ramsey in the centre and on the right and given Joel Campbell and Theo Walcott runs on both flanks, plus he hasn’t been helped by other midfield options being out injured. But hopefully this new-found combination can bring the cohesion back into Arsenal’s play and get some positivity back at the club.
In the second half, Arsenal’s game management was good as, bar a headed chance for Phil Jagielka from a corner when David Ospina was struggling to move following a clash with Lukaku, Everton were restricted to very few opportunities. Olivier Giroud came off the bench and was denied a clear goal by another bizarre decision from Mark Clattenburg and hit the side-netting late on with another opportunity, summing up his recent run of form. The Frenchman usually responds well to challenges for his place in the team, and with some more luck, and proper refereeing, he would have scored coming off the bench on Saturday.
In many ways, seeing Arsenal play so well in a tricky away game only increases the frustrations that this season is likely to leave. The Gunners have it in them to put in some brilliant performances and the potential to score some beautiful goals, the consistency just hasn’t been there. Hopefully the three points at Goodison Park can be a catalyst to get that consistency back for the rest of the season and, with eight games to go, you never know where it might take Arsenal in the table, but the overriding feeling is that any remarkable winning run would be too late to take the title. For the moment though, it’s just nice to get back to winning ways and to see an Arsenal team play some beautiful football again.