As tends to be the case with most games, they don’t exist in a vacuum. They sit as small acts and scenes in a much wider play. When reviewing such games it is always worthwhile trying to re-establish how the drama sits within a wider narrative. The stand out point to note, as of 2002 there has been no takeover of Chelsea, and Manchester City are not even a Premier League Team. Thus Arsenal under the tutelage of Wenger has won the double in 1998, and repeated this again in the previous season. While they would end up throwing the league away this season, the following season they achieve what seems almost impossible and win the league without losing a game. They are the big competitor to Manchester United’s dominance and while Leeds, Liverpool and Chelsea threaten some opposition they are the only serious rival. At this moment it feels as if Arsenal may well be on the cusp of creating a dynasty akin to what Alex Ferguson has at United.
At this time, the team Wenger has established at Arsenal is frightening. Of their starting 11 there are 7 players who are over 6 ft tall. There are certified world class performers in Patrick Viera, Ashley Cole and Sol Campbell who would walk into any side on earth. On top of that there is Thierry Henry, who is arguably the best player in the world at this point. Underneath those 4 you then have played like Ljumberg, Seaman, Kanu, Toure, Lauren and Gilberto Silva who are all seasoned internationals and if not world class themselves are very close to that level. It’s as imposing a side as you could ever wish to play.
This context remains important, as in truth while we have defeated Arsenal on a number of occasions subsequently, few were as good as this side. While they ultimately didn’t go on to dominate English football but could well put an argument they produced a higher water mark than their rivals Manchester United. The soft centredness that would come to characterise subsequent Arsenal teams was just not apparent back in 2002. It was a big, powerful, aggressive side that was filled with winners and quite possibly the best team in Europe. My memories of travelling to this match, was that much of the discussion was around whether this Arsenal team would be the first to remain undefeated for the season. Everton by comparison were big outsiders.
Everton by comparison were a very ordinary team, but there was something of a buzz around the new manager Moyes. We had ended the previous season with something of a flurry and it had been an exciting summer. Young goalkeeper Richard Wright had been recruited and at 24 had already been capped for England. Young centre back Joseph Yobo had a power and speed that was still relatively novel in the modern game and was a sharp divergence from the other options of Alan Stubbs and David Weir. Moyes had also promoted young right back Tony Hibbert to the first team and there was the emergence of Wayne Rooney, who was still just 16. Each in their own way gave the side a more youthful and exciting zest which dovetailed well with the more experienced players. For Moyes-who had wanted to bring the age of the squad down it matched something of a sweet spot. The senior players acted as a crutch of stability for the newer, younger players while the youthful energy of the newer players gave the squad a potency it was lacking before.
On watching the game back, Everton actually play start well and maintain a good performance level throughout. It’s clear the plan is to try and play aggressively and press the Arsenal team. They were unfortunate to lose an early goal to Arsenal when a deflecting ball in the box fell to the Swedish winger Freddie Ljumberg, who typically pounced and finished. He was exceptional sharp manoeuvres in and around the penalty box and was a ruthless finisher when given a chance.
What I find quite striking is that the goal doesn’t massively deter Everton, who continue to stay on the front foot. Over (particularly) the last 2-3 years we have become used to Everton teams wilting when they fall behind, particularly early in the game. Yet there was no panic from the team. They keep pushing forward, and thanks to an impressive run from Gravesen, Tomasz Radzisnki gets Everton level after just 20 minutes, at which point a somewhat ferocious start simmers into more of a chess match between the two teams.
The ability to win points from behind was emblematic for this Everton team. No side actually wins more points from behind as we can see from this chart.
When you aggregate it into a points per game measure they are 3rd in the table recovering just over 1 point per game they fall behind. The league average is around 0.5 ppg. If you half Everton’s point clawed back to the league average (reducing the total by 12 points) they slip from 59 points to just 47 (and from 7th to 15th). Again it’s an over simplification but you could put an argument forward that what underpinned the improvement of this team was not so much better performances, but fantastic resilience when falling behind. When you consider both the experience in the team, the togetherness Moyes had cultivated and the time many members of the team had had to grow together and the options Moyes from the bench- it’s understandable why they were able to perform in such a way.
This is all clearly evidenced in this game. There is no panic from the team. Linderoth comes on for Li Tie in the centre of midfield and puts in a more composed performance than Li Tie (who had been unusually erratic). With 10 minutes to go Moyes plays his joker. Striker Radzinski is taken off, and 16 year old Rooney is called to the stage. Moyes uses his 3 strikers brilliantly this season, with Campbell acting as a target man for either or Radzsinki or Rooney and scores 10 goals in the process. Radzinski is arguably Everton’s player of the season, and doesn’t provide Everton with goals (11 in 26 starts) but an outlet for when they are under pressure. They are undoubtedly the best partnership and balance each others strengths out. However, even at 16, Rooney is by far the superior player. Moyes often uses him in bursts from the bench where he comes on and turns games for Everton.
While I have tried to give a broader analysis of the game, in essence the story is a coming of age novella about Wayne Rooney (as encapsulated by the commentary by Clive Tyldesly- “remember the name Wayne Rooney”). Shocking as it is to think now, but outside of Merseyside Rooney was something of an unknown quantity in the wider consciousness. While Everton fans who would watch him every week could see a player who seemingly had no discernible weaknesses and wonderful ability to do things that few senior players could manage- this was simply not recognised in the wider public to the degree it may have been. This was after all a pre youtube, pre social media age where the awareness of players was not at the levels it now is. So there was a player with enormous ability jarring with the reality of awareness being much lower than it might have been- with a big event required to marry the two together.
It is worth noting that Radzinski has another very good game prior to Rooney’s arrival. At times in the 2nd half, when Everton are under pressure he provides an outlet to release pressure with intelligent movement and speed buying the team precious second’s in the opposition half. Yet for all the good Radzinski does, Rooney’s all round ability shines through. There is a moment before the goal than a ball is hit over the Arsenal right back, Rooney’s runs onto the ball, control’s it perfectly towards the corner flag and teases the Arsenal defenders, holding the ball with little to no support. Eventually Unsworth arrives and he expertly passes the ball into his path for Unsworth to deliver a cross into the box. Ultimately nothing came from the cross so in and of itself the moment was lost, but the intelligence of Rooney in being able to do the smaller, grittier aspects of the game essential in a struggling team was apparent.
The big moment discussed above comes just a few minutes later. Everton were defending increasingly deep and there is a hooked clearance up the pitch. Rooney takes the ball over his shoulder and again kills it dead. The smart play is to head to the corner flag and buy Everton a bit more time, but instinct kicks in for Rooney. While it is a limited team, he’s a player who thinks like a player who will win all the honours in the game. He turns and runs at England centre back Sol Campbell. He approaches around 25 yards out and England defender Campbell goes to close him, and Rooney unleashes what looks a speculative effort. It goes over Campbells legs, over Goalkeeper Seaman before tipping to clip the corner of the bar and nestle into the back of the net. The vision to see the shot, and the ability to execute it to perfection provided an indication of what was to come from Rooney.
In truth the ground was euphoric at this point. From my seat in the Park End the ball went into the net in slow motion. Time slowed and you were unsure quite how to celebrate such a moment. A young child who sits a couple of rows behind me makes an attempt to run on the pitch, his dad chases after him and (I think) manages to intercept him getting on the pitch. That Rooney is inches away from repeating the medicine a minute or so later, taking down a clearance in the right channel, dribbles past Ashley Cole, nutmegs Pascal Cygan before nonchalantly flicking the ball with the outside of his foot from 25 yards towards the top corner. Seaman, who had advanced slightly to close the gap following the previous goal is left to watch the ball sail over him and land on the roof of the net. Had Rooney been half a yard further out it would have nestled into the bottom corner, and given the chaos in the ground it’s difficult to gage what the reaction may have been. A star had arrived.
The whistle would go shortly after this for what was a historic win for Everton. Not only had they beaten the reigning double winners, but they had come from behind to do so. As the below links show, this Arsenal team across that season, and the one that proceeded and followed it would lose only 3 other times on the 95 occasions they went ahead in games.
When you factor in how it was done, and that it was an announcement of a player who would go onto be England’s and Manchester United’s leading goalscorer, you knew this was a a very special moment.
At the time you were also quite aware of the symbolism of the goal and the win. For Moyes it really cemented him as a manager at this level. He would go on to have 11 very productive years at Everton and transform a club that were perennial strugglers into ones that generally occupied the top 6/7 players of the table. In the 9 years before Moyes arrived they had finished in the top half just once and on most of the occasions faced difficulties with relegation. For Rooney he only confirmed what every Evertonian knew, that we were witnessing the sort of talent that rarely comes around. In spite of his enviable record, most Everton fans would acknowledge that Rooney perhaps didn’t hit the heights he could have done. While he’s widely regarded as the best player of his generation, he is lumped in with Gerrard, Lampard, Terry, Owen & Giggs. The reality is, given the ability he had at 16 he was substantially ahead of them at an equivalent age. Indeed Wayne Rooney at 16 showed more end product and talent than Christaino Ronaldo would show at age 20. While he’s regarded as one of the great English players, to my mind had he fulfilled the promise he showed at Everton there would be no need for the debate.
For the club it was a rare glimpse of what was possible and they would be spurned on to finish 7th in the league that season. It was also something of a springboard away from flirtation with relegation, with the club only finishing lower than 11th once in the following 18 years. Following the Arsenal game, Everton would show form that would have seen them finish 6th in the league (level on points with 5th placed Blackburn). Both for that season, and for the following years the result provided something of a springboard and a break with the gloomy years that had preceded it.