LONDON — Three points from the Emirates Stadium after Arsenal’s 2-0 Premier League victory over Everton on Sunday.
1. Rapid-succession goals secure Arsenal win
Arsenal had struggled to create chances throughout the first half, and it took a truly wonderful individual strike from Alexandre Lacazette for the Gunners to take the lead 10 minutes into the second half. Receiving a pass from Aaron Ramsey in an inside-left position, the French striker took a touch, opened up his body and thumped the ball in off the far post. It was the type of position Thierry Henry scored from so regularly throughout his Arsenal career, a goal that mixed power with late swerve.
Three minutes later it was 2-0, with Arsenal breaking in behind down the right channel and finding three players — Mesut Ozil, Ramsey and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang — running through against just one Everton defender, Jonjoe Kenny. Ozil dribbled toward goal and squared with typical selflessness to Ramsey, who stumbled but managed to flick the ball onto Aubameyang, who smashed home — from an offside position. The recovering Michael Keane correctly protested to the referee’s assistant, who was clearly confused by the unusual nature of Ramsey’s half-hearted flick, and got a fairly obvious decision wrong. The Toffees were unlucky to have their deficit doubled, reversing their fortuitous last season as outlined in ESPN’s Luck Index.
Until that burst of life, Arsenal had been disappointing. Ramsey had rarely impacted the game from his No. 10 position and Ozil had been peripheral on the right, his primary job about drifting inside to open up space for Hector Bellerin. The Spanish right-back was, in keeping with his displays this season, arguably Arsenal’s main attacking threat. His deep cross in the early stages allowed Aubameyang to knock the ball back for Nacho Monreal, whose effort was saved by Jordan Pickford.
Otherwise, Arsenal had created little of note, the closest they’d come to scoring at 0-0 when Aubameyang’s miscued left-footed cross floated onto the top of the crossbar. There were also further problems when attempting to play out from the back, with Granit Xhaka conceding possession cheaply in a dangerous position in the early stages, and Arsenal losing the ball three times in quick succession when attempting to pass forward at the start of the second half.
Nevertheless, four straight league wins represents a fine run, better than they managed in the entirety of last season — and takes them into sixth position, level on points with Tottenham.
2. Cech bails out defensively poor Gunners
Despite their clean sheet, Arsenal’s performance without possession was far from impressive. Unai Emery has attempted to implement a pressing game, encouraging Arsenal’s attackers to hunt in packs and regain the ball quickly, but throughout the first half this plan failed, with Everton working the ball through the press and breaking into space.
In midfield, Lucas Torreira started for the first time in the Premier League alongside Xhaka, a combination of two players prone to reckless challenges. Torreira was booked in the opening stages after an unnecessary lunge on Gylfi Sigurdsson, and shortly before half-time was later accused of a rash tackle on Lucas Digne, albeit after relatively minimal contact. Xhaka also found himself being spoken to by Jon Moss, and while few would accuse Arsenal of lacking fight in midfield, a constant criticism of the past decade, perhaps they now lack discipline.
The problems without possession were completed by the shakiness of Arsenal’s centre-back partnership. Shkodran Mustafi and Sokratis Papastathopoulos still look nervous when defending high up the pitch, especially here against an Everton side boasting plenty of speed.
Both are prone to simple defensive mistakes, too. One incident here summarised their problems. Mustafi made a decent interception but then overran the ball, losing it to Theo Walcott. Sokratis, reacting to the concession of possession, lunged in and brought Walcott to the floor with such a clumsy tackle that he hobbled off injured shortly afterward, replaced by Rob Holding. This was especially problematic considering Mustafi had also been limping after landing awkwardly from an aerial challenge.
Among all this, Petr Cech stood firm. In the second minute he faced a one-on-one against the speedy Dominic Calvert-Lewin and made a fine sliding intervention as the striker attempted to round him. Later he also got the better of Walcott, who raced onto Sigurdsson’s neat through-ball but found Cech racing off his line to deny him, and made more routine saves from Digne’s free kick and Richarlison’s near-post blast before half-time. He also got down quickly to smartly turn Keane’s header from Sigurdsson’s free kick around the post.
Cech has been under pressure this season, both from newcomer Bernd Leno and because he looks uncomfortable playing out from the back, a key part of Emery’s philosophy. His shot-stopping here, however, was exemplary.
3. Walcott’s Arsenal homecoming spoiled
This was Walcott’s first return to Arsenal since his switch to Goodison Park in January, and he naturally received a warm ovation from the home supporters; Walcott managed 108 goals in Arsenal colours and was the Gunners’ longest-serving player before his departure.
He would have fancied his chances here, against an Arsenal defence eternally vulnerable to speed. Marco Silva’s decision to omit the misfiring Cenk Tosun and instead selecting a trio of Richarlison, Calvert-Lewin and Walcott hinted at Everton’s likely approach: running in behind.
Walcott might have been slightly disappointed not to be handed the centre-forward role, the position he long coveted during his time at the Emirates, and it was Calvert-Lewis who had Everton’s first chance in the second minute when foiled by Cech. But Walcott was probably the Toffees’ brightest player, easily outpacing Monreal on a couple of occasions. He was also a threat on the outside, stabbing a decent early cross into the six-yard box.
There was one embarrassing moment when he dribbled the ball out of play on a counter-attack, but Walcott remains excellent at timing his runs into the inside-right channel, and his surge onto Sigurdsson’s pass midway through the first half was excellent, producing a fine save from Cech. Walcott eternally wants to make that kind of run.
One misunderstanding between him and Tom Davies, Everton’s captain, at the start of the second half told the story. Walcott was loitering by the touchline and Davies played the ball low into his feet, as if Walcott would want to cross. Instead, Walcott was moving in the opposite direction, typically en route towards goal, and the ball trickled behind him and out of play. Later, Walcott attempted to outwit Holding by the corner flag, but simply trod on the ball and conceded possession. It wasn’t quite his day, and with 20 minutes remaining he was replaced by Brazilian winger Bernard to a generous ovation from the home supporters.
This was Everton’s first test against serious opposition under Silva, who will be relatively content with their performance despite the defeat. Everton had looked defensively solid in the first half, not something you can say about their previous appearances this season, and had created the game’s better chances. Lacazette’s stunning opener changed the game, and it’s that type of moment that Everton are lacking; six games into the season, and their starting centre-forward still hasn’t scored. Combine that with no clean sheets, and it’s clear that, for all their impressive midfield play, Everton need to improve at both ends.