Everton went into this fixture looking to arrest a slump that had seen the Toffees earn just one win in their previous 11 games. Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal, meanwhile, were very much riding the crest of some good form having not lost in the league since their opening day of the season defeat to Liverpool.
The Gunners knew that a fourth consecutive league win would take them level with table toppers Chelsea who would travel to Sunderland the following night.
Ronald Koeman made four changes to his side after their disappointing display at Vicarage Road against Watford. Phil Jagielka replaced Ramiro Funes Mori in defence, while Gareth Barry lost his place to the ever promising but sporadically fulfilling, Ross Barkley. Both wide players were changed as the Dutch manager opted for Ener Valencia and Aaron Lennon instead of Gerard Deulofeu and Kevin Mirallas.
The only change Wenger made to his starting 11 was enforced by the injury Shkodran Mustafi sustained during Saturday’s victory over Stoke. Hector Bellerin started at right-back with Gabriel moving into his natural centre-back position.
Arsenal made the better start as they naturally fed on their recent run and their opponents’ anxiety but there was little action until Alexis Sanchez fortuitously opened the scoring. The Chilean forward has been his side’s stand out player having scored seven and set up two in his previous six games. That tally rose to eight when his deflected and fairly tame free-kick from the edge of Everton’s penalty area deflected off a wrong-footed Ashley Williams before evading Martin Stekelenburg’s dive.
The goal was a fair reflection of the opening exchanges. Most were expecting Arsenal to extend their advantage as Mesut Ozil regularly found pockets of space in the final third.
But despite falling behind and frustrations increasing amongst the home support, Everton began to turn the game into a battle of desire over skill.
Valencia was appreciated for his tenacity in closing down opponents and riding challenges which raised the pace of the game. This encouraged the Goodison Park faithful to get behind their beloved team.
The difference between Everton’s first 30 minutes and the other 68 (including injury-time) was more productive than Arsenal’s. The home side attempted and completed more passes per minute in the attacking third during that second phase while their attempts at Petr Cech’s goal increased three-fold.
Arsenal experienced a greater increase in attacking third passes – partly due to games typically opening up as players tire and time runs out – but Wenger’s men failed to convert those passes into goal scoring opportunities with a minimal increase of 0.03 shots per minute compared to Everton’s 0.14.
In midfield, Idrissa Gueye started to get a stronger foothold in the game as the former Aston Villa player finished top for ball recoveries (12), tackles (six from six) and interceptions (four). His equivalent in Arsenal’s team, Francis Coquelin, only managed five ball recoveries, four from four tackles and one interception. Granted he did have Granit Xhaka alongside him to share the defensive duties; the Swiss midfielder achieving eight ball recoveries, four from eight tackles and two interceptions.
Leicester’s former joint assistant manager and head of recruitment, Steve Walsh – who joined Everton as their director of football in the summer – described 2016’s title-winning midfield as a three-man set-up. Danny Drinkwater in the middle and N’Golo Kante either side. Those who watched the champions during the last campaign and now Chelsea, will appreciate those sentiments and Gueye appears to be heading in a similar direction, which bodes well for the Toffees.
Everton quite rightly looked to exploit Arsenal’s softened defence through the physicality of Romelu Lukaku.
With two attacking full-backs capable of providing dangerous balls into the box in Leighton Baines and Seamus Coleman, it came as no surprise that Everton attempted 26 crosses to Arsenal’s 10.
The majority of Everton’s crosses came from Coleman’s side as Valencia naturally tucked into a more central area which encouraged the marauding full-back to provide the width. But it was an in-swinging cross from the right-foot of left-back Baines that found Coleman who had gambled and ghosted in at the far-post to header home.
Positioning himself between the Laurent Koscielny and Nacho Monreal meant the Ireland international was unchallenged to score his second in three home games.
The laws of probability led to an 86th minute winner as another ball in the box highlighted Arsenal’s defensive deficiencies and Everton’s determination. Williams was able to atone for his part in the opening goal with an unstoppable header that raised the roof of both the net and stadium to give Koeman a much-needed victory.
Shot shy Arsenal
The Gunners’ only effort on target was Sanchez’s goal in the 20th minute until the chaotic melee at the death which so nearly resulted in an equaliser.
That’s obviously not good enough for a side looking to challenge at the top, particularly when they looked so comfortable during the first half an hour.
Symbolic of a poor night in front of goal was Ozil’s squandered opportunity with the scores at 1-1 in the second half. The former Real Madrid playmaker should have scored following Sanchez’s cutback from the left but failed to keep his effort down.
This deserved win for Everton proved that it isn’t always skill and flair that’s needed to succeed in the Premier League. Their application and effort having gone behind would have pleased the manager and supporters, particularly ahead of the Merseyside Derby next Monday when they host local rivals, Liverpool.
For Arsenal, this was an opportunity missed as their unbeaten run comes to an end. Wenger and co will be hoping to bounce back in their next game at Man City – who sit directly below them in fourth – on Sunday.
EPL Results (Gameweek 16):
Bournemouth 1-0 Leicester
Everton 2-1 Arsenal
Middlesbrough 0-3 Liverpool
Sunderland 0-1 Chelsea
West Ham 1-0 Burnley
Crystal Palace 1-2 Man Utd
Man City 2-0 Watford
Stoke 0-0 Southampton
Tottenham 3-0 Hull
West Brom 3-0 Swansea