Arsenal came to Goodison Park and almost completely dominated the play with only rare moments from the Blues in anything remotely close to attacking intentions. A fine game from the much maligned Vitalii Mykolenko and a return to the first team for Dominic Calvert-Lewin were about the only positives from this worrying inability to trouble the visitors.
Everton versus Arsenal is always an occasion and this game promised to be another as the two clubs with the most years in the top flight met at Goodison Park with so much for both sides to play for – Everton still searching for a first victory in the league and the Gunners under Mikel Arteta looking to keep pressure on at the top of the table if they could record a first win at the Grand Old Lady since 2017.
Everton have been hogging lots of the media headlines in recent days, mostly for the on-off change of ownership conundrum that took another twist early on Friday morning with the announcement that Farhad Moshiri has reached an agreement with 777 Partners to sell his 94.1% majority shareholding to the American group.
Preferring to concentrate purely on on-field matters when speaking to the media, Blues boss Sean Dyche commented, “We want the performance levels to stay high and the basic structure of the team has to be good, of course. The work ethic of the team has to be good against all sides, and particularly sides like Arsenal. Equally, finding your key moments. I think that’s probably been the biggest challenge we’ve faced so far this season. We haven’t been clinical enough to take hold of games at the key times.”
He continued adding, “Last season [against Arsenal at Goodison Park] we were in good shape and stayed committed to the cause. At that stage, it was a big game, a big moment, and every players nose was pointing in the right direction. They were all playing on the edge. That’s what we want. We want every player doing that all the time.”
In squad news Dyche was able to confirm his options were improving as Jarrad Branthwaite, James Tarkowski and Lewis Dobbin had all overcome minor problems, and striker Dominic Calvert-Lewin was available after recovering from the facial injury sustained against Aston Villa. Asked about the impact made by Beto since he arrived, Dyche enthused, “I think he’s added a different feel. He’s quite quiet actually but, the way he goes about it, and the way he trains – he’s got a lovely rawness about him so far and he just wants to take everything on. He’s very open-minded and I think he’s shown that in his performances so far, and he’s shown that in training. We certainly want to allow him to build on that because, the strange thing about football is, you want players to be polished, but you don’t want them to lose that raw edge.”
With the home fans desperate for a win amid the on-going uncertainty over off-field issues, Dyche selected a starting eleven that read: Jordan Pickford, Ashley Young, James Tarkowski (c), Jarrad Branthwaite, Vitalii Mykolenko, Dwight McNeil, Idrissa Gana Gueye, Amadou Onana, Arnaut Danjuma, Abdoulaye Doucoure and Beto.
Whilst an Everton victory would lift them out of the bottom three, a victory for the Arsenal would take them back into the top four as they look to continue their improvement over the last 18 months under Mikel Arteta. And the Spaniard was delighted to advise the only notable absentee from his selection thinking was Thomas Partey about who he noted, “He’s still a few weeks away. He’s got a muscle injury and he’s progressing well but he’s still a few weeks away.” As for Bukayo Saka and the rest of his squad who had been away on international duty, he added, “He’s fine. He trained normally today so nothing to report there. Every player has pains or issues. That’s normal in elite sports, but nothing to worry about. The rest all came back well and all trained today, so they’re in a good place and available.”
In the coming weeks, Arsenal will be back in the Champions League and have a Derby with Tottenham to look forward to but, Arteta had eyes firmly on the immediate task of facing Everton when he commented, “First, Everton is the only one that we have in mind. Obviously our record speaks for itself. In the last six years we haven’t won there, so we’re going to have to earn it and we know that we’re going to have to be at our best to beat them there and it’s something that we haven’t managed to do, so that’s where we’re going to start.”
The best little Spaniard we used to know added, “Obviously I have a big emotional attachment to that football club, the way they treated me and the years that I spent there. The incredible memories that I have, so always grateful. It was a big, big part of my playing career, and now as a coach I have to play against them and obviously I want to beat them.”
With an embarrassment of riches to select from Arteta opted to name his starting line-up: Raya, White, Saliba, Gabriel, Zinchenko, Odegaard (c), Rice, Vieira, Saka, Nketiah and Martinelli.
Despite the forecast for rain, at kick-off time conditions for football were nigh on perfect and Simon Hooper to act as our referee.
An immaculately observed minutes silence for the loss of life in both Libya and Morocco preceded kick-off which Arsenal took defending the Park End and they settled into their passing game right from the start leading to McNeil conceding the first corner on a cross from Zinchenko, and Tarkowski easily cleared the set piece to touch.
On the evidence of the opening five minutes, the Gunners were clearly aiming to utterly dominate possession and Everton would likely need to adapt to a counter attacking game. Arsenal won a second corner conceded by Branthwaite after McNeil got caught in midfield, the set piece was played deep and a clearance attempt by Branthwaite cannoned behind for a third corner off Young, and Vieira blazed over the top when found by Zinchenko.
Pickford was caught by Nketiah as he cleared a short back pass by Branthwaite, the home crowd annoyed that the Arsenal player didn’t get a yellow card. The Blues had learend early that going long from the back wasn’t the best idea and Pickford was intelligently playing the ball short to allow the outfield players to try and build from the back.
A really harsh call for a foul by Doucoure on Rice again annoyed the home fans as we passed the quarter hour mark or almost total Arsenal pressure. On 19 minutes, Everton appealed for an offside against Nketiah while Arsenal played on and Martinelli, found by Vieira, took full advantage to slip an inch perfect shot beyond Pickford and into the Gwladys Street goal with VAR – for once – going in the Blues favour and the ‘goal’ was chalked off.
Martinelli went down off the ball with an apparent hamstring pull and was replaced by Trossard. Another patient build-up by the visitors ended with Branthwaite blocking a shot from Rice and a cross from the left being too strong for Odegaard at the back post. Everton were really struggling to get any kind of momentum and the lack of atmosphere from the home crowd only served to confirm the dominance of Arsenal.
A rare foray forward by the Blues as Gana Gueye released Beto to run at Saliba who competently shepherded the ball out for a goal kick. A cross from the right by Young aimed towards Beto was easily gathered by Raya and we passed the half hour mark with the game still goalless. A good driving run by Doucoure saw him gain the Arsenal area and go down for half-hearted and unsuccessful claims for a penalty and a shot from Gana Gueye was easily gathered low to his right by Raya.
After Vieira went down after running into Beto, Saka went down next under a challenge from Mykolenko with the referee deciding a drop ball to restart was the right call without booking Saka for feigning injury. Rice on Gana Gueye gave the Blues a free kick and a chance to get the ball into the Arsenal area, only for the visitors to defend it easily through Gabriel, and when Everton tried to come again, McNeil saw a shot from distance blocked and cleared.
Nice interplay by Arsenal ended with White shooting straight at Pickford and we entered the final five minutes of the half with the Gunners still probing and Everton looking to break if they could get a hold of the ball. Four added minutes were announced and a long ball by Pickford fell to Gana Gueye who got wide left to cross for McNeil to volley a shot that was blocked and cleared and the first yellow card of the game was shown to Ashley Young for a foul on Trossard.
Referee Hooper rightly chose to ignore claims from Saliba that Beto had caught him in the face, again a player feigning injury not punished for doing so blatantly. Saka brought down Onana to end the half and for all their possession, Arsenal had failed to find a way through an Everton defence that was working hard to deny them, and Jordan Pickford had only had the one easy save from White to make.
Half Time: 0-0
No changes by either manager for the start of the second half that immediately replaced much of the first with Arsenal on the front foot with Branthwaite denying Saka and Jordan Pickford with a fine save to deny Odegaard found by Rice. Gabriel was booked for impeding Beto to give the Blues a free kick that was poorly played by Young and cleared before Onana needlessly fouled White.
Branthwaite and Mykolenko stymied Odegaard and Saka respectively before Tarkowski stood firm to block a powerful shot by Zinchenko as Arsenal again looked to pin the Blues deep into their own half. A good run by Trossard was wasted by Vieira who slowed things down to a walking pace before a deep cross aimed toward Trossard was smuggled to safety by Tarkowski.
Zinchenko picked out Trossard with a superb ball and Mykolenko with a goal line clearance foiled the Gunners. Saka again went down claiming he’d been caught in the face by Doucoure, and when Doucoure lost possession to Nketiah, Tarkowski with a well-timed tackle conceded a corner from the right that Branthwaite initially cleared before the ball went out for another corner to the visitors, that led to a Zinchenko shot being charged down by Tarkowski with Arsenal bleating for a penalty when the contact wasn’t even in the area – doh.
An hour gone and the third quick corner saw Tarkowski head a Zinchenko shot clear and the follow-up cross was gathered by Pickford from Branthwaite. Everton were still doing a good job at frustrating Arsenal and soaking up the pressure as DCL prepared to join the action. A foul by Vieira on Gana Gueye saw Young again fail to make any serious impression on the visitors defence although Gabriel again went down claiming a stray arm from Tarkowski had caught him.
On 65 minutes, changes by both sides saw Arsenal send on Gabriel Jesus for Nketiah and Dominic Calvert-Lewin return from injury wearing a face mask to replace Beto.
Arsenal failed to adequately clear a long throw from Mykolenko and Danjuma saw a quick shot go just too high. Arsenal responded with Saka winning a seventh corner that saw DCL head the ball bach to Pickford. Arsenal came again through Saka and Onana conceded the corner that led to three or four passes ending with Trossard getting on the end of a ball from Saka to volley the Gunners ahead on 69 minutes.
Everton now had to come out to try and find a way back into a game that, by and large, they hadn’t seriously had a great deal of. A long ball from Pickford found Mykolenko – of all people – in the Arsenal area to win a corner as his shot was blocked behind, the delivery from Young again was poor and Raya had no trouble whatsoever in claiming it.
Vieira couldn’t make the most of a deep cross from White as Arsenal looked to put the game beyond Everton, and we passed the 75 minute mark with Mykolenko getting back to deny Jesus found by a long ball from Gabriel. Everton got down the other end only for Gana Gueye to blaze a shot high and wide of the target. Trossard played in Odegaard who was denied by Pickford and a tremendous block from Mykolenko denied Vieira.
Both managers prepared more substitutes and on 79 minutes, Tomiyasu and Havertz replaced Zinchenko and Vieira for the Arsenal while James Garner came on for Abdoulaye Doucoure. The game was petering out and there were still over five minutes of the regulation ninety to play, and Everton needed to throw the proverbial kitchen sink at Arsenal. Jesus was lectured for some nonsense with Tarkowski and Nathan Patterson and Youssef Chermiti made cameo appearances replacing Ashley Young and Dwight McNeil respectively on 87 minutes.
Patterson found DCL but, he was unable to get an effort on target and four further minutes were added with Sean Dyche and the home crowd bemused at how little time had been added given how long Arsenal had taken over many of their corners. Arsenal players were no going down like ninepins to waste even more time and not endearing themselves to the Blues fans who had decided to stay to the bitter end. Arsenal won two late corners to eat up more time and to be perfectly honest, the final whistle could not come quick enough.
If this was an advert for the supposedly best league in the world, it failed miserably to excite anyone bar the travelling Arsenal fans.