Arsenal shook off the enervating cobwebs of two cup exits in a week as they saw off a slack Everton side at Goodison Park thanks to two first-half goals.
Danny Welbeck and Alex Iwobi were on hand for the Gunners as their attack finally clicked against a habitually leaky Toffees defence. After being humbled by Watford in the FA Cup and crashing out of the Champions League against Barcelona, this win keeps Arsenal hanging on to the coattails of Leicester City and Tottenham in the Premier League title race.
Arsene Wenger kept his starting line-up largely unchanged from the one at Camp Nou, with Francis Coquelin for the injured Mathieu Flamini being the only change. After facing off against the otherworldly trio of Messi, Suarez and Neymar in midweek, Laurent Koscielny and Gabriel faced a different kind of challenge with the grisly strength and spirit of Romelu Lukaku. The Belgian powerhouse had jinked and bustled his way to two goals against Chelsea the previous week, and the Arsenal backline were understandably on high alert.
As things turned out, it was the away team’s attack that started purring from the outset. Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil exchanged passes at lightning pace on the edge of the box, before the Chilean slipped in Welbeck with a well-weighted slide rule ball. The in-form forward rounded the keeper and slotted the ball into the net with consummate ease to hand Arsenal the lead that their fast start merited.
Arsenal’s gameplan against Everton seemed like a continuation of their Barcelona performance, something that Wenger acknowledged in the post-match press conference. The Arsenal attackers pressed high up the pitch, ably assisted by the tireless Mohamed Elneny.
The backline also kept its shape with discipline, snuffing out any long balls in behind and dealing strongly with aerial battles. This dual stifling strategy meant that Evertonian forays forward were ineffective, their play littered with loose passes and overt caution.
Apart from a mishit corner that Coleman deflected onto the post in the second minute, Everton hardly troubled the Arsenal defence in the first half. And five minutes before the break, Arsenal made them pay for their lack of penetration.
An Everton attack broke down near Hector Bellerin, and the Spanish full-back played a beautiful lofted ball forward into the feet of a charging Alex Iwobi. The Nigerian youngster used his strength admirably to fend off Funes Mori’s advances, before side-footing his shot between the keeper’s legs.
Everton brought on John Stones for Muhamed Besic at the break, and while that resulted in increased defensive solidity, it didn’t help spark their attack into life. The Arsenal centre-backs continued to handle Lukaku well, and Everton’s wing play was dented by Iwobi, Elneny, Coquelin, and Sanchez tracking back to help the full backs. The most noteworthy goalmouth action for the hosts was Lukaku dangerously ramming his knee into Ospina’s face while reaching out to meet a cross.
The Colombian chose to carry on despite looking rattled, and Everton almost scored in the ensuing confusion, as Jagielka shot inches wide from a corner. Arsenal brought on Olivier Giroud, Keiran Gibbs, and Calum Chambers to provide an out-ball for counters and shore up the defence. Giroud almost scored from a corner, only for the referee to wrongly blow his whistle citing a foul in the build-up. In the dying stages, the Frenchman had another good chance to increase Arsenal’s lead when played in by Chambers, but rasped his shot wide of the post.
The game ended without further incident, leaving both Everton and Arsenal fans frustrated with their teams’ Jekyll-and-Hyde performances. Everton continued their abject home form with an eighth league defeat at Goodison Park, as an FA Cup semi-final looms like a lone beacon of hope amidst a season to forget.
Arsenal fans will be relieved that the team ended a horrid week with some reprieve and finally arrested a bad run of league form, but it may well be too late to catch high-flying Leicester, who sneaked a 1-0 win past Crystal Palace.
Even a strong league finish – unless it results in an unlikely title win – might not be enough to stretch the Arsenal fans’ patience with Wenger to another season. Towards the end of the game, the away fans could be heard chanting for Stan Kroenke to leave the club in quite colourful language.
Banners asking Wenger to leave after a 4-0 win against Hull and these chants after the Everton game show that the supporters’ minds will not be swayed by isolated good results. Something seems to have cracked, and only a change at the top can repair it.
Either that, or a late Arsenal title charge.