Monday, January 24, 2022

Everton 0-2 Arsenal: Iwobi shines as Gunners get going at last

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Arsene Wenger has spent most of this season searching, unsuccessfully it has to be said, for combinations that work. Injuries have forced his hand far too often, and you’d be very hard pressed to say a front three of Theo Walcott on the left, Joel Campbell on the right, and Olivier Giroud up top was anything close to his ideal set-up.

Perhaps now, at this late stage of the season, he’s found something that works. Or, in these early days, at least looks like it has more potential than previous iterations. Alexis Sanchez was moved to the right yesterday, not simply to accommodate Alex Iwobi on the left, but also to give his game a change of perspective. He’d been struggling on the other side really, and while he’s still far from his best, he contributed well to an excellent first half for Arsenal.

The pace, power and freshness of Danny Welbeck up front gives us something different. Rather than a fairly static outlet/offensive fulcrum, we have a moving target. Somebody who can hold it up, but also somebody who can spin in behind and cause defences problems. With Mesut Ozil pulling the strings behind, it’s a quick, aggressive, attacking unit with plenty going for it. [When I announced the teams yesterday and autocorrect changed Iwobi to Iowa, some clever people on Twitter were quick to point out that it could have been an acronym for Iwobi, Ozil, Welbeck, Alexis – watch this become a thing now!].

Goals have been hard to come by in recent times, so an early one was very welcome, and that it came from a beautiful piece of football, something we’ve seen far too infrequently this season, made it even better. Controlled possession for a sustained period, slicing them open with fantastic combination play between Ozil and Alexis, great movement from Welbeck to get behind the defence and around the keeper, and a perfect finish.

The second, late in the half, came from a counter-attack. We’ve had plenty of them this season, but they tend to fizzle out without any end product. Not this time. Hector Bellerin sent a ball over the top for Iwobi to run onto and he showed why Arsene Wenger has given him a chance. His pace is obvious, he kept the ball under control, and finished beautifully between the keeper’s legs for his first Arsenal goal on his first Premier League start.

2-0 at half-time was something of a novelty, and had Mark Clattenburg seen the obvious fouls on Alexis, we would have had a penalty too. It feels better talking about the referee when we win, but he was really bad yesterday, missing very obvious fouls throughout the game, disallowing a Giroud goal late on for no good reason, and generally being quite rubbish. Almost as bad as Everton, which is to take nothing away from our performance – which was certainly better – but they were ridiculous at times. I can’t remember seeing a team give the ball away so frequently. Not complaining, by the way, just an observation.

The second half was less exciting. The closest Everton came to scoring was midway through after David Ospina had been creamed by Romelu Lukaku and couldn’t feel anything below the waist. From a corner Phil Jagielka headed just over – Clattenburg then gave them another corner because he felt sorry for him, I think. The keeper was a bit crocked for a while, leading to that most excellent of things – a centre-half taking a goal kick.

It was clear that fatigue was going to play a part at some point, and we were certainly less threatening, but then we didn’t need to be. We seemed happy to sit off and let Everton waste possession, and maybe catch them on the break again. Where our energy never wavered was in midfield, and if we’re talking about combinations today, then Coqeneny looks like a midfield partnership that might actually go somewhere.

The Frenchman had his best game since returning from injury, making 12 interceptions and 15 ball recoveries, while Elneny had another very promising game. His fitness levels must be through the roof, because even late on he was tearing about the pitch to press the Everton players. Again, it’s early days, but it seems like they’re duo that actually complement each other and work well together.

As I mentioned, we should have had a goal when Giroud headed home from a corner, and we should have had one when Chambers set up the striker late on, but his shot flashed wide, rather summing him up at this moment in time. Still, if you’d had offered me a 2-0 before the game I’d have bitten your hand off, so I won’t complain a bit about the result and there were things in the performance that were very pleasing.

Afterwards, Arsene Wenger said:

We are today with our backs to the walls and we responded well. I’m pleased that we responded under pressure – the character of my players was questioned. If we didn’t win today, we knew that we were out of it so it was a mental test for the side.

And on what he drew from the performance and team selection:

I believe we have a game based on movement and mobility at a technical level with attacking football. We have to balance that right and sometimes it is not always right. Let’s not forget that some players have been out for the whole season so players like Danny Welbeck are just coming back and has not played. Iwobi is just coming into the team. Mohamed Elneny, we brought him in January and he has settled very quickly. They have given us a very good balance in the way we want to play football.

So, a very welcome victory, but it’s hard to get away from the too little, too late feeling that’s going around in my brain. That said, we’ve had so much analysis and introspection over what’s going wrong and why, I’d rather just enjoy this one this morning. We’ve had the conversations, we’ve now got an Interlull to contend with, and there’ll be lots of time to chew the fat and gristle of this season. So, for this morning, I’m going to leave it all to one side and just feel happy that my team won a game of football – which probably says something in itself.

On a final note, it’s interesting that chants yesterday were aimed at Stan Kroenke whose position as majority shareholder has been something of a background issue. With all the focus on the manager and the players, I think it’s telling that the man at the very top is now coming in for some attention. Being realistic, it won’t make any difference to him, I’m sure he doesn’t care one bit, but after some difficult times, it’s nice to have something that pretty much all fans can agree on and be united over.

Right, have a good Sunday. James and I will have an Arsecast Extra for you tomorrow. Until then.

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