No Christmas cheer but at least Big Dunc remained unbeaten.
A game utterly bereft of quality from both sides ended goalless and with the spoils shared. Both sides demonstrated in spades how much work their respective new managers have to turn their fortunes around in the second half of the season.
Decembers’ game kept coming thick and fast as the visit of Arsenal to Goodison just three days after the penalty shootout exit of the Carabao Cup gave Duncan Ferguson his fourth game in temporary charge of Everton.
The home crowd were expectant of an appearance from managerial target Carlo Ancelotti in the directors box as press reports throughout the week had indicated he was the preferred candidate and that an announcement of him joining the Blues was imminent. A little over an hour ahead of the kick-off came the news Blues everywhere had been awaiting, that the Italian with a host of titles to his name was indeed confirmed as being the new manager of Everton Football Club.
And in his first interview, he commented, “This is a great club with a rich history and a very passionate fan base. There is a clear vision from the Owner and the Board to deliver success and trophies. That is something that appeals to me as a manager and I am thrilled at the prospect of being able to work with everybody at the Club to help make that vision a reality. I have seen from the performances in the last two weeks that the players are capable of so much. The work Duncan has done is a great credit to him. Strong organisation, strong discipline and the right motivation are some of the key ingredients in football and I’m pleased that he will be part of my backroom team moving forward.”
Equally as important were the words of Director of Football Marcel Brands who enthused, “Following a rigorous process conducted by all of our Directors, it is a pleasure to now welcome Carlo Ancelotti to Everton. He is one of the finest managers in world football and a proven winner, having achieved a remarkable level of success in each of Europe’s major leagues. He is the perfect appointment for us. He embraces our vision for the Club and we are sure that his enthusiasm to take the helm at Goodison together with his tactical abilities and well-renowned man-management will make him successful in this role. This was a clear and exciting decision for the Board to make. It was a unanimous choice and one we were all fully united behind throughout. Carlo has proven time and again, he knows how to build a trophy-winning side and we share the excitement of our fans at the prospect of him leading our team in the years ahead. We’re all greatly looking forward to working with him.”
While the club hierarchy had been busy agreeing all the terms and conditions of the Ancelotti appointment, Duncan Ferguson had been busy rallying the players for the final game before Christmas against a wounded and under-new-management Arsenal. There was good news for the big Scot as both Djibril Sidibe and Gylfi Sigurdsson had recovered from sickness and Lucas Digne and Fabian Delph were expected to be available for selection too.
In his pre-match press conference, Ferguson reflected upon his brief time in the managerial role saying, “I’ve loved it. The adrenaline’s through the roof and of course the players have responded, which is the most pleasing thing. I’m happy with the job I’ve done. [Becoming a manager] is not something I’m particularly pushing for at the moment, it could be two or three years down the line for me, but this has been a great education. I just want Everton to be successful. I want the new manager to come in and do a fantastic job, which I’m sure he will, and if I can be a part of that, brilliant.”
For what was expected to be his last team selection and being mindful of a win before Christmas would be a great finish, he named his 4-4-2 starting eleven: Pickford, Sidibe, Holgate, Mina, Digne, Davies, Delph, Sigurdsson (c), Iwobi, Richarlison and Calvert-Lewin.
Like Everton, our visitors Arsenal have been searching for a new manager following the dismissal of Unai Emery and concluded their appointment process on Friday morning as former club captain, and former Everton crowd favourite, Mikel Arteta left the number two role at the Etihad for the Emirates hot seat.
Whilst Freddie Ljungberg was still in temporary charge until the Spaniard officially takes charge on Sunday, it was Arteta who took a delayed press conference on Friday afternoon noting, “I feel back home. I have prepared for the challenge and am ready. I have to engage the players, when I was here with Man City [for last Sunday’s Premier League match] everyone was a bit down. We have to have the right culture here. After that we can talk about other things. We need an immediate impact and need to raise the level of the performances to start winning games and engage with the fans.”
The Gunners were definitely without defender Sead Kolasinac with an ankle injury but had Granit Xhaka available after a two game absence with a concussion, and were waiting late fitness tests on Bellerin, Holding and mercurial midfielder Mesut Ozil.
Whoever selected the Arsenal side, their submitted teamsheet listed a starting line-up in 4-2-3-1 formation: Leno, Maitland-Niles, Chambers, Luiz, Saka, Torrerira, Xhaka, Nelson, Smith Rowe, Martinelli and Aubameyang (c).
With yet another full-house Goodison hoping for an Everton win to give Duncan Ferguson a superb Christmas and the perfect welcome platform for Carlo Ancelotti on a cool, but sunny afternoon, our referee was Kevin Friend.
A calm, steady opening saw the Blues win an early corner at the Gwladys Street End, the sun possibly a problem for Leno in the Arsenal goal, but the set piece from Digne was poor and easily cleared. With barely five minutes on the clock, Alex Iwobi pulled up holding his right thigh with a possible hamstring strain, Bernard immediately out to warm up if needed for an early change.
A decent move down the right flank saw DCL win a second corner off Luiz, but it another woeful delivery from Digne that was far too easily cleared by the Arsenal defence.
Iwobi went down again on ten minutes and limped off to be replaced by Cenk Tosun, rather than Bernard, and the Turk was quickly into the action taking a short pass from Richarlison before firing wide of the target.
Maitland-Niles sent a right wing cross into the Everton penalty area but it was too far ahead of Aubameyang and Everton countered to win a free kick under the Main Stand for a foul on DCL. The free kick was delayed while Martinelli received some treatment having gone down on the Arsenal right wing.
Delph swung a cross in for Richarlison to control and shoot, but Saka was quick to block. The next Everton raid saw Luiz bring down Richarlison two yards outside the area, Sigurdsson curling the free kick wide of the near post.
Everton had enjoyed much the better of the opening twenty minutes without unduly worrying the visitors. Another clumsy challenge by Luiz saw him pile into the back of DCL, inexplicably not seeing a yellow card, but again, Everton failed to make the most of a set piece opportunity… the watching Ancelotti will surely have taken note that this is an area that needs some attention.
The game was badly in need of some quality and pace and Delph tried to inject some chasing a ball and forcing Leno into a hurried clearance, Saka was booked for kicking the ball away delaying the resulting throw-in.
A good challenge in midfield by Davies saw the ball find Sidibe to send over a long ball for Tosun to volley from a tight angle straight into the arms of Leno.
Richarlison got away down the left but when his ball to the right found Davies, he was somewhat isolated and Arsenal were able to win the ball back and clear – highlighting a lack of quality in the overall standard of play.
The crowd were getting a bit restless as the Blues appeared to lack the drive and competitive edge they’d shown in the previous three games under Duncan Ferguson. Mina with a good ball found Richarlison on the left and he drove forward with the eventual cross easily dealt with by Leno.
Sidibe found Davies on the right of the Arsenal area, but his cross was too hard and cannoned behind off Tosun, Arsenal got forward to feed Martinelli but his shot was wide of the target and Tom Davies was booked for a challenge on Xhaka in the build-up.
Two added minutes were signalled and I’m staggered I’ve written as much as this about a first half that saw not one attempt by either side on target. As the sides retired to the dressing room, it’s probably fair to suggest that on the recent form of both sides, the Arteta/Ljungberg combination was far happier than the Ancelotti/Ferguson camp.
Half Time: 0-0
No changes by either stand-in manager during the break as Everton attacked the Park End for the second half.
An early chance saw Digne get past Maitland-Niles to find Richarlison in the area but his cross shot was off target and didn’t trouble Leno.
Nelson skipped away from Digne and Holgate got across quickly to cover and block the cross away for the visitors first corner that was easily cleared. Arsenal had started well and a ball from Aubameyang saw Mina stretch to deny Sake and concede a second quick corner. The set piece was headed on and Pickford was called upon to make a good save, pawing away a close range shot from Aubameyang for a third corner.
Arsenal had signalled their intent that didn’t fear Everton and another raid saw Aubameyang fail to get a decent contact on a shot when fed by Smith Rowe.
The Blues needed something, could Ferguson again discarding his jacket provide the spark? A long throw from Digne came out to Sigurdsson and his shot was deflected for a corner off Torreira, again the set piece failed to produce and Arsenal cleared with ease.
DCL got caught by an accidental high boot off Saka, but quickly got to his feet to continue. Sidibe getting forward found Tosun but his ball to Davies was behind the midfielder and sailed out for a throw -in, the poor ball bringing boos from the home fans desperate to see some positive from a drab game.
Passing the hour mark, Luiz fouled Tosun with the referee again not reaching for the yellow card, the mop-haired Brazilian riding his luck on a number of fouls conceded.
Duncan Ferguson was looking increasingly animated on the touchline, rightly so given the lack lustre approach from the Blues.
Arsenal made their first change on 66 minutes, Smith Rowe replaced by Willock.
The Gunners were very, very lucky to survive a Blues raid as DCL and Davies exchanged passes to find Richarlison who beat his man to lay the ball back to DCL and his shot ricochetted around before going out for a corner off Torreira, again the corner from Sigurdsson producing nothing.
Into the final twenty minute and Arsenal were looking the more composed on the ball and Everton desperately in need of something, so it was something of a shock when Ferguson withdrew Delph to send on Michael Keane… looking to protect the point?
Sigurdsson was booked on 74 minutes for a foul on Saka, bemusing given the number of fouls in the game by Luiz that hadn’t seen him carded.
Arsenal were still looking to force the game and Lacazette replaced Aubameyang on 77 minutes, the Blues immediately telling Moise Kean to get ready to come on, and on 79 minutes, he came on for Tosun, making him the second subbed sub by Duncan Ferguson in his four games in charge.
The crowd were trying to urge Everton forward in the last ten minutes and they gleefully jeered a wild shot from Martinelli.
With five minutes left on the clock, Mina went down holding his groin, another possible injury the last thing Everton needed going into Christmas. Holgate showing some urgency in getting forward drew a foul and a yellow card for Chambers. The free kick from Digne again was poor.
Richarlison took a ball from Kean to find Davies whose shot from distance had neither the power nor direction to trouble Leno and three added minutes were signalled by the fourth official.
Willock was yellow carded for a foul on Sigurdsson and Everton threw everyone forward in search of a late, late winner, but again Arsenal cleared without too much difficulty.
A drab game of too many poor passes, too many poor set pieces and a desperate lack of quality from Everton fizzled out, the only positive that could be taken was that Carlo Ancelotti saw in his first visit to Goodison, the size of the challenge ahead of him in turning Everton around.