Playing a third match in seven days and conceding inside the first minute, this one had all the makings of a massive letdown for Arsenal. But the Gunners fought back, claimed the points, and move to within 4 points of 5th place and a possible Champions League spot. Arsenal have won three straight matches and still haven’t lost this calendar year.
Both Everton goals today came from a combination of shoddy set-piece defending and unfortunate bounces. The first goal was “set up” by a horrendous David Luiz missed header that ricocheted off his shoulder up in the air and backwards to Dominic Calvert-Lewin for an impressive overhead finish. The second came from that fantastic combination of loose marking and a bouncing ball in the box; Richarlison poked it home.
Arsenal’s goals, on the other hand, were lovely pieces of football. The first came from another inch perfect cross from Bukayo Saka that a leaping Eddie Nketiah deftly touched into the corner. The second was set up by a David Luiz through ball that not many (if any) other centerbacks can hit; he put Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang in behind Djibril Sidibé for the goal. For the third, Aubameyang found a pocket of space behind Sidibé and headed home Nicolas Pépé’s cross.
The Gunners ran out of gas with about 20 minutes to go but managed to hold on for the win. The defense sat very deep and accepted a great deal of pressure from the Toffees. Were it not for two tremendous saves and Dominic Calvert-Lewin squandering a couple chances, the points would have been split.
A few more notes on the match.
- Bernd Leno made up for a weak first half with an outstanding second one. In addition to the two cracking saves, he came well out of his box to cut out a ball that would have put Richarlison in on goal.
- Shkodran Mustafi had another strong game. His transformation from mistake-prone disaster at the back to steady, solid defender is remarkable. I’ve got a lot of respect for him. He handled a tremendous amount of criticism from fans and in the media with class, kept working, and has earned his regular starting place.
- Héctor Bellerín still looks off. His positioning was poor, and Richarlison definitely got the better of him. I’m not worried about it, recovering from an ACL injury can take 18 months. He’ll find his form sooner or later. It’s nice that Arsenal will soon have Cedric Soares available to take some of the pressure off him.
- Bukayo Saka notched his 10th assist in all competitions, the most of any teenager in the Premier League. He’s also the first Arsenal teenager to reach double-digit assists since Cesc Fàbregas in 2006-07. But he had a rough second half, including a ten minute spell where he made three or four bad turnovers in the defensive third. He’s 18 and playing out of position — that’s going to happen. Hopefully Sead Kolasinac’s injury isn’t serious and Kieran Tierney gets back soon. I’m a little worried about Saka’s workload.
- Dani Ceballos and Granit Xhaka worked pretty well as a midfield pair, with Ceballos providing a bit of not-before-seen steel. Xhaka continues to be an unsung hero for the Gunners. He’s not flashy and you really only notice him when he makes mistakes, but he’s an important piece. It’s great to see him back in the fold and happy at the club after the episode with the fans at the Emirates earlier this season.
- Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is unbelievable. His brace moves him into a tie for the Premier League lead with 17 goals. He also put in a tremendous shift defensively, tracking back and snuffing out several Everton attacks. He was everywhere.
I wrote before the match that I thought today could be tipping point for the side, one that launches the Gunners into a run of form. Arsenal have the return leg against Olympiacos on Thursday and their 5th Round FA Cup match against Portsmouth a week from Monday. Let’s hope I’m right.