Everton 2 - 1 Arsenal
After 10 games with just one win, the team sliding into the bottom half of the Premier League and serious questions being asked by supporters of both manager and players, Goodison Park needed to witness a big performance and a result to match.
It took a little while to get going and it required the extra catalyst of conceding the first goal but by the end of 97 minutes’ play, the Grand Old Lady was reverberating with excitement as only she can after one of those famous nights under her lights.
If there was a sense that Evertonians were simply at the end of their tether and that the nonsense that has gone on for almost three months was going to end tonight, it was evident as the home faithful cajoled, roared and seemingly drove their side back from Alexis Sanchez’s 20th-minute strike with sheer will. As the players responded, the volume and fierceness of passion from the stands rose and everything came together in the 86th minute as Ashley Williams landed the decisive blow in a pulsating contest that almost had a vicious sting in the tale for Ronald Koeman’s men.
It was a turn of events that seemed a distant prospect on Saturday afternoon as the Blues slumped to a 3-2 defeat at Watford amid all the anger and recriminations that followed. Koeman appeared as lost at that point as his predecessor had at times on how to revitalise his team’s fortunes but a summit between players and manager, combined with a long-overdue tactical shift in attack had the desired effect in delivering a badly-needed victory.
Based on his declining fortunes at West Ham and his ineffective debut against Norwich in the League Cup, Enner Valencia had largely been written off as an ill-advised deadline-day panic signing. In his fleeting substitute appearances in recent weeks, however, he had shown flashes of the difference he could make if given half a chance. At the very least, he could provide a foil for Romelu Lukaku and create space in which the Belgian could operate.
The Ecuadorian wasn’t deployed as a second striker but in a wider role on the opposite flank to Aaron Lennon and he proceeded to run himself into the ground for the cause in a laudably committed 79-minute display. And his efforts were matched by James McCarthy, another player whose Goodison days appeared to be numbered, but who chased, harried, chopped and harassed Arsenal all evening long alongside the ever-imperious Idrissa Gueye.
Replacing the rested Gareth Barry, McCarthy provided the energy and legs that the veteran midfielder couldn’t have and he rewarded his manager’s faith in him.
So, too, did Ross Barkley who, despite making his 100th Premier League start, still occasionally looks raw and is prone to choosing the wrong option. But there was no question that he was gripped by the importance of the game, not only for Everton but for him personally after spending the previous two games on the bench.
Koeman was critical of his side’s efforts in the first 20 minutes but the first 15 minutes were, by the measure of recent games, encouraging, least after Barkley had invited needless danger in only the second minute with a sloppy pass that Sanchez couldn’t punish when he overhit a through-ball intended for Theo Walcott.
Everton had a couple of early moments where Lukaku got free on the right hand side of the box — the second time after excellent work by Valencia — but his attempts to cut the ball back into the centre were blocked behind. And when they didn’t have the ball, as they wouldn’t for a long spell from around the 10-minute mark, they remained compact and dared the Gunners to try and play their way through.
Unfortunately, the Blues got themselves into a mess of their own making when Valencia ran into trouble trying to dribble his way out from the back, Barkley was robbed off possession close to his own box, Williams missed Francis Coquelin with a wild lunge but connected with Gueye instead, and Jagielka upended the Arsenal midfielder right on the edge of the box.
Sanchez lined up a direct free kick which he fired low at Williams and the Welshman, unable to sort his feet out, could only put a big deflection on the shot that Maarten Stekelenburg, diving to his left, could only help into the net.
The remainder of the first half was characterised by Everton up building an increasing head of steam, first as a reaction to frustration from the stands to misplaced passes or unnecessarily backward movement and then as a response to passionate urgency from the fans every time they went forward.
Lennon, playing down the left in the position as his lively cameo at Vicarage Road on Saturday, had one determined and skilful run but was unfortunate to slice his effort into the Park End. The same player then stabbed a snapshot wide of the other side of goal after Barkley’s free kick had bobbled off Laurent Koscielny.
The reward for Everton’s greater commitment arrived a minute before the interval, however, when the two fullbacks combined to level the scores. Leighton Baines collected Gueye’s pass down the left, turned back and then swung a wicked cross to the six-yard box where Coleman arrived to guide the ball into the far corner with a neat glancing header.
Half-time provided an unwanted check to Everton’s momentum and the first 10 minutes of the second period were largely uneventful until Coquelin took advantage of a slip by Coleman and Sanchez cut the ball back from the byline but Mezut Özil, normally so deadly in such positions, cleared the bar with a sweeping left-foot shot.
Goodison’s fire was up a few minutes later, however, when Coquelin tripped Baines in full flight just outside the box and Mark Clattenburg bottled a decision to give a yellow card. Barkley hit the defensive wall with the resulting free kick but when he flashed a low shot past Petr Cech’s left-hand post on the hour mark, the belief started flooding back into Evertonian veins.
Lukaku, by turns effective in his hold-up play and pedestrian in his demeanour, sensed it and he turned on the afterburners in the 70th minute with a powerful surge past Gabriel Paulista down the left flank but the Brazilian made up the ground to deflect his attempted shot behind for a corner.
With Arsenal’s ever-present attacking danger — not to mention Everton nemesis Olivier Giroud who entered the fray in place of Theo Walcott with 20 minutes to go — and the Blues feeding off Goodison’s “12th man”, the game could have swung either way in the last quarter of hour as legs visibly tired.
A half-chance in the 72nd minute where Barkley’s hard, low cross spun off Koscielny’s legs but just wouldn’t fall for Lukaku in front goal and then another incident 13 minutes later where Cech pulled off a reflex save from Jagielka seemed to indicate that it wasn’t to be Everton’s day.
From the third corner in succession though Barkley finally found his range and Williams rose through a crowd of static yellow shirts to plant a downward header past the goalkeeper before wheeling away in manic celebration at what was a huge moment for player and team alike.
In keeping with what had been a frenetic match at times, stoppage time almost produced high drama at both ends. It saw Jagielka sent off for a second book able offence and Arsene Wenger might still be wondering how his side didn’t grab a point in the fourth minute of that added time against the Blues' 10 men.
Having accelerated past his man and into the Gunners’ area a couple of minutes prior, Barkley had had a great chance to drive a cross to two waiting Blue shirts who could have killed the game but he shot straight at Cech instead.
Then, with the big Arsenal ‘keeper joining his attack for a corner, his opposite number Stekelenburg pawed the ball off his head and away from immediate danger. The visitors kept the ball, however, after Everton substitute Dominic Calvert-Lewin had mis-kicked his attempted clearance, Alex Iwobi fed Sanchez and his flighted ball to the back post was clawed away again by the Dutch ‘keeper.
Monreal’s volley was blocked superbly by Ramiro Funes Mori, himself a late sub for McCarthy, and Iwobi’s first-time drive was cleared off the goal line by Baines before Calvert-Lewin cleared his lines after Sanchez had gone down in the box appealing for a penalty after his challenge with Mirallas.
That sent Lukaku away in a foot-race with Hector Bellerin that the Spaniard initially won but then allowed himself to be dispossessed but while Barkley collected the striker’s pass as Cech was still scampering back to his line from the other end of the field, his pass to Mirallas was poor and Koscielny was able to slide it off his toe.
30 seconds later, however, it was all over. Arsenal, sitting strong in second place in the table, 14 games unbeaten in the Premier League, and with pundits proclaiming Arsene Wenger had finally achieved the balance and depth in his squad to land England’s biggest crown again, had been beaten in a match that so many Evertonians had written off beforehand.
Time will tell if this proves to be a turning point for Koeman and Everton. Certainly, the result and spirited display that achieved it, don’t immediately erase the issues underlying the awful run results that preceded it, dating all the way back to the EFL Cup defeat to Norwich in September. The play was still too direct at times, with movement in midfield and up front still lacking at times but what this win did do is prove that there is still fight and determination in this team when it is dragged out of them by their manager and supporters alike. It must surely have made more of an Evertonian of Koeman who won't have experienced anything like that since arriving at the club.
It sets a benchmark of what's expected, however, and also sets Everton up perfectly for the Merseyside derby on Monday where another performance with the intensity and passion of this one will give Koeman and his men a great chance of putting one over the enemy from the across the Park. After that, they can worry about mustering the same spirit in less glamourous fixtures but one step at a time.
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