ToffeeWeb Match Report
No, we never really expected we could win at Highbury — although we hoped to catch Arsenal unaware and spring an opening day surprise. We haven't won there since 1996 but they've won every league game there against us since. For a few minutes in the first half it looked like we could win and after Sol Campbell was sent off after 25 minutes, we probably should have.
But the Everton of old, the one we've been living with for years now, the one whose agonising dearth of midfield creativity is borne of having precious little money to spend in the transfer market, reared it's head once again. The Gunners, despite playing almost all of those 75 minutes a man down, brushed David Moyes's team aside with relative ease. The enormous gulf of class and financial muscle between these two clubs, one that was masked during that game last October and by Everton's flirtation with the top four last season, was laid bare and it made desperately uncomfortable viewing for the Blues' faithful.
Shorn of Kevin Campbell's services up front and three of his less exciting midfielders through injury, and relieved of the necessity to include Duncan Ferguson in the squad through the Scottish wastrel's three-match ban, David Moyes didn't have a big pool of players from which to choose, but the team he did field at kick off raised a few eyebrows nonetheless. Alessandro Pistone was preferred to Tony Hibbert on the right, which deserved criticism only because it meant David Unsworth started at left back, and Mark Pembridge was selected ahead of Gary Naysmith in left midfield. Leon Osman wasn't even on a substitute's bench that did feature Wayne Rooney, despite The Boy not being fully match fit.
The opening exchanges of the game once it kicked off had all the hallmarks of two teams playing their first meaningful football for three months, but it has to be said that Everton looked the more hungry of the two sides. Indeed, they could have been ahead as early as the 6th minute when Thomas Gravesen fed Tomasz Radzinski out on the right and he cut inside before squaring an inviting ball into Nick Chadwick's path, but the 20 year-old striker could only effect a tame toe poke that Jens Lehman in the Arsenal goal did well to block with his legs. It was likely an unfortunate combination of surprise and inexperience for Chadwick but it was Everton's best chance of the half.
Gravesen may well have been presented the best chance of the half, and more than likely the first goal, had Sol Campbell not brought a sudden end to his jinking run on the edge of the area and earned a straight red card for his trouble. It was a rare and sublime piece of skill by Gravesen and he had clearly beaten the defender with a deft shimmy, leaving referee Halsey with little alternative but to adjudge it as illegally preventing a goalscoring opportunity.
So, there it was; as a big a gift as a team as inadequately equipped as Everton often are could wish for at a place like Highbury. The challenge was to continue to probe the Arsenal defence as they had been up until that point, exploit their numerical advantage and really go for the jugular.
Instead, it was typical Everton from that point until Radzinski pulled a goal back late on to give his side some hope. We had the oh-so familiar lack of attacking ideas in midfield, the complete dearth of width, and possibly the single-most frustrating sight in football: the aimless cross-field punt from Unsworth that invariably finds an opposition player or the far touchline. The man has being playing the game at the highest level for a decade — and we have appreciated him for his guts, determination and spirit — and yet he still can't find a Blue shirt on a consistent basis.
The red card was a catalyst, but it ignited a spark in Arsenal and not Everton. All slick passing, intelligent running and pin-point throughballs, Arséne Wenger's team were a threat every time they came forward. And they were in front less than ten minutes after Campbell's premature departure. Thierry Henry tried to beat Alan Stubbs just inside the area by flicking the ball past him but an instinctive move of the elbow towards the ball was spotted by the referee and Arsenal were rightly awarded a penalty which Henry dispatched down the center and past Richard Wright who had dived to his left.
After Radzinski had had a fierce drive unwittingly deflected over the bar by Chadwick, Henry's perfectly-weighted through-ball found Gilberto in the clear down the right channel but he stumbled over the ball and it went for a goal kick, wasting a gilt-edged opportunity to extend the home side's lead right on half time.
It was 2-0, however, 12 minutes after the restart. After Patrick Vieira had missed with an unchallenged header from a corner and Radzinski had blazed the ball across the goal and well wide, Arsenal attacked down the left with typical incision and although Wright pulled off a brilliant double-save, the ball fell straight into the path of Robert Pires who couldn't miss the empty net. Three Arsenal attackers were in attendance when the ball crossed the line with no Blue shirt within five yards, incredible for a team with one more man on the field.
It was nearly 3-0 eight minutes later, but again Wright was on hand to palm the ball acrobatically over the bar from point-blank range. At the other, despite the introduction of first Rooney for Linderoth and then Naysmith and Li Tie for Unsworth and Pembridge, the Blues were offering nothing in attack. Instead, Freddie Ljungberg rattled the Everton bar with a curling free kick that, crucially, picked up a deflection on the way.
However, with the minutes ebbing away, Everton found a way back into the game. After the Arsenal defence failed to capitalise on a moment of indecision between two blue-shirted players on the edge of the area, Gary Naysmith knocked the loose ball to Radzinski to his left and the Canadian international smashed it past Lehmann to make it 2-1.
Cue the grandstand finish and a final opportunity to make the extra man tell. Instead, Li Tie was sent off for two quick yellow cards for over-exuberant tackles, and although Joseph Yobo sent a towering header over the bar with a couple of minutes to go, Moyes's side never looked capable of grabbing the all-important equaliser.
As much as the result was expected it was nevertheless disappointing because it further illustrated Everton's persisting inability to break down teams with ten men and it pressed home the depressing financial realities under which the manager must operate. Moyes needs the addition of Sean Davis so badly it probably hurts. Gravesen was so laid back at times it was disturbing, but it was still probably his best performance in a long while (not to say he was brilliant because it was his dreadful pass that almost gifted Gilberto the second goal) and he was unlucky not to be rewarded with the potential goal Campbell's body check took away from him.
Moyes could do a few more striking options as well, for while Chadwick tried to put himself about alongside Radzinski, he failed to really offer anything in terms of an attacking outlet. Radzinski was his usual pacey and dangerous self, but he often ploughed a lonely furrow up front without sufficient support from midfield. In defence, Unsworth was, well, Unsworth (appalling distribution and little else) and Stubbs will hopefully be kicking himself for the handball but Yobo was majestic alongside him and Pistone made an accomplished performance at right back.
So, roll on Fulham and an opportunity to get some points on the board before the confidence drains away. If it were up to me, Hibbert would play right back, Pistone left back and Osman would get at least a decent run out as substitute to see if he can't solve some of the midfield woes.
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