Sunday, December 10, 2023

Everton 0-1 Arsenal: back fourmidable

Match reportVideoBy the numbers

Before the game Robin van Persie said we had to learn to ‘win ugly’. Last night wasn’t exactly ugly, it was perhaps a touch plain, but I’m pretty sure grinding out a 1-0 was exactly what he was talking about.

With one change from the Newcastle game, Ramsey in for Oxlade-Chamberlain and rather surprisingly deployed on the left of the attack, Arsenal started extremely brightly. Good combination play between Rosicky and van Persie created a chance that the Welshman should have taken, and a minute later Arsenal won a corner when his shot was deflected over the bar.

The skipper curled it in, Thomas Vermaelen’s movement was too much for a completely static Everton defence and Arsenal were 1-0 up in the 7th minute. It was the Belgian’s fifth league goal of the season. Ramsey and Arteta then worked an opening for van Persie, his shot was saved by Howard and Ramsey’s follow up blocked, it all looked good.

Unfortunately, we couldn’t quite keep up that momentum from an attacking point of view. Everton got back into the game but struggled to create anything. On either side Sagna and Gibbs were quick to cut out any danger, and that which did arrive in the middle was dealt with by Koscielny and Vermaelen. We did, however, get one enormous piece of luck when the linesman decided Royston Drenthe was offside before he slid the ball into the net.

It stemmed from a careless piece of play in midfield from Alex Song who gave the ball away cheaply. Everton reacted, Drenthe wasn’t even close to being offside and the home side will feel aggrieved at that this morning. In fact, it was a characteristic of the game that Everton were caught offside time and time again. After the game Moyes complained that five of those decisions were wrong but bar the goal they all looked good to me and it was a credit to the defence that they maintained a solid line throughout.

It does work both ways though. In the second half Arsenal should have had a penalty when Rosicky was clearly fouled inside the area by Drenthe, Lee Mason decided that hooking somebody’s leg from behind wasn’t enough for a spot kick, so they got away with one themselves. We found it difficult to keep the ball and to fashion chances but all the same Howard was the busier keeper.

He had saved late in the 1st half from Rosicky, Robin hit the post after a great knock down from Kieran Gibbs, Ramsey forced a very good save from the keeper with an effort going in at the near post, while Gervinho (on for Walcott) set up van Persie but he miscued his shot high and wide, and we’ve seen him score more difficult ones than that this season.

Up the other end the back four continued their uncanny impression of the Arsenal back four of old, working and moving as a real unit, continuing to catch Everton out and when there was any threat of danger it was removed with extreme prejudice. Vermaelen nearly booted Peinaar’s head off when he ducked towards the ball, while Koscielny was brave putting his head in when Cahill tried an overhead kick.

In the end Szczesny was just a spectator, I don’t remember him having to make any kind of save at all in the 2nd half, and when the clock was ticking down, we kept the ball down near the Everton corner flag to see out the game. In the past we’ve been caught out trying to score when all we needed to do was keep the ball, so that was good to see. Afterwards, Arsene said:

We were resilient, focused and with a great desire to defend. We showed a side of us that usually people don’t know. It was the only way to get a result tonight. It was good to know that we can do that as well. We didn’t panic, we did well on crosses which is usually not our strong point. We didn’t panic and that is good for us.

So much of what we’ve done recently has been based on the attacking side of our team. There’s absolutely no denying the brilliance of van Persie and how important his goals have been, but last night’s win was down to how we defended and that’s hugely encouraging for me. I will single out the back four because to a man I thought they were fantastic.

Having full backs in the side really is so important. Gibbs looked comfortable and seems to be growing in confidence, while I don’t think there’s a better right back in England than Bacary Sagna. He is ultra-consistent and this new found ability – which you have to surmise is brought about by work on the training ground – to win header after header from Szczesny’s kick outs is incredible.

In the past I’ve worried about Koscielny and Vermaelen being too similar to form a truly effective partnership but last night, and the last few games in fairness, have shown us they’re more than capable of doing that. There was nothing showy about the way they played, it was just uncomplicated, effective central-defending and I love seeing that as much as anything else in the game.

That said, there’s no way the back four could play so well without the whole team working for them and that’s what’s most positive of all. I can’t remember if it were Rosicky or Arteta who was pressurising Howard as the ball came back to him, but whoever it was, Robin van Persie noticed it, and dropped back quickly into midfield to fill that position. That’s exactly what we mean when we talk about the team working hard for each other. It is like a chain, one weak link is all it takes to cause a problem, but there were none to be found in that Arsenal side last night.

So, with Sp*rs dropping points at home to Stoke and Chelsea being beaten by Man City (to a late Nasri goal, no less!), it was an excellent night for us. We’re now in third place, it’s in our own hands, and despite some of the early season stuff, we have a better goal difference than Sp*rs too. Of course there’s still nine games to play and nobody should be under any illusions that the job is anywhere near done.

If the last few weeks have taught us anything it’s that a comfortable position, like the one they had, can be wiped out very quickly indeed, so let’s enjoy another three points, but remain focused and professional, ensuring we win the next one. One game at a time, as Arsene says. The time for crowing has not yet come, there’s still a lot of work to do.

Right, that’s yer lot. Just a quickie for those of you using iPhone app, there’s an update available now in the app store which fixes a few issues, so please install that as and when you can. More info on the mobile apps here.

Back tomorrow with a cast of arse. Till then.

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