LONDON — The roar of relief that greeted the final whistle in Arsenal’s disrepairing 3-2 win over Everton told his own story.
In front of the canoes, Arsenal coach Mikel Arteta turned to his coaching staff. On the field, his players shared tired and happy hugs with each other, their smiles reflecting both the satisfaction after a hard afternoon of work and the awareness of luck that had allowed them to emerge with the three points.
Those watching Arsenal have clearly discerned Arteta’s positive impact on the team’s performance from the first game of his new term, but have managed to turn his team into a more stubborn force – witnessing the four successive Premier League draws they recorded between early January and early February – the expectation now is that these improvements will begin to be reflected in their results.
After last weekend’s 4-0 win over Newcastle United and a hard-fought away 1-0 win over Olympiakos in the Europa League, Arsenal have won three in a row in all competitions for the first time since September. The win over everton in form took them to ninth place in the table and with only four points separating them from fifth place, which will provide a gateway to the Champions League if Manchester City’s ban from the competition is maintained, a return to the top of Europe now feels closer than it has for months.
– Report: Arsenal 3-2 Everton
– Arsenal standings: Saka, Aubameyang 7/10 in thrilling victory
After the match, Arteta praised the “spirit” and “resilience” of his players despite their “absolutely broken” after the midweek trip to Athens. In his pre-match program notes, he stressed the importance of recognizing the difference between “what you want to do and what you can do” and on that front, victory over Everton proved to be a useful example.
In terms of their attacking football and their pace of work, Much of what Arsenal did will have rained Arteta, His 20-year-old striker Eddie Nketiah’s pick on Alexandre Lacazette, who had scored the winner at Olympiakos, was justified in the 27th minute when the former Leeds United on loan sprang into the air on the fly in a magnificent cross from substitute Bukayo Saka (on that expected for the injured Sead Kolasinac) and cancelled
Dani Ceballos once again impressed alongside Granit Xhaka in the deeper midfield role Arteta has booked for him, with a vital challenge on the dangerous Richarlison early in the second half to draw strong approval from the Emirates Stadium faithful. Arteta’s faith in Shkodran Mustafi continues to bear fruit. While Arsenal looked fragile in their third defence at times (more on that later), the well-maligned German centre-back defended vigorously and produced a number of decisive interventions.
The figurehead of Arsenal’s victory, but what Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. His first goal, a Thierry Henry goal on a superb ball from David Luiz, gave Arsenal the lead for the first time in the 33rd minute and his second, a header from Nicolas Pepe’s centre-forward, gave the hosts the lead after Richarlison equalised in the first minute.
With 17 goals, the Gabonese striker is now the Premier League’s top scorer alongside Leicester’s Jamie Vardy, but it was his defensive contribution that really caught the eye. Operating wide on the left in a 4-2-3-1 formation that had turned into a back-to-the-wall 4-5-1 at the end, the Arsenal captain set the tone for his team-mates with his tireless pressing and finished the game with a tackle count (three) that only Mustafi in a red jersey could be equal.
“I’m so happy with him,” Arteta said. “Because he scores very important goals for us, but also, as captain, he sets a great example for everyone that a player of his caliber is able to work the way he works defensively.
“I had two questions: either he doesn’t want to do it or he can’t physically do it. Once I found out that physically he could do it, it was just a matter of convincing him to do it every three days. And he’s showing it.
The gap between what Arteta wants to see of Arsenal and what he gets has been reflected in the defensive shortcomings that allowed Everton to score two goals and pose an attacking threat throughout. Arsenal had kept clean sheets on their previous three outings, but any sense of defensive serenity disappeared in the space of 49 seconds it took Calvert-Lewin to put Everton in the lead after the home team failed to cope with a Gylfi Sigurdsson free kick.
Everton’s two goals came from set-pieces, which continues to be a problem for the Gunners: only relegation threatened Aston Villa, with 14, have conceded more dead ball goals this season than the 12 shipped by Arsenal. Richarlison and Calvert-Lewin have repeatedly exposed Arsenal’s vulnerability to the pace behind their four full-backs; Had it not been for a Bernd Leno-inspired goalkeeper in the final 20 minutes, Carlo Ancelotti’s men would have left north London with the point (or points) of their deserved performance.
With assignments against Manchester United, Chelsea and Liverpool to follow, Sunday’s result was a disappointing start to a sequence of matches that will test Everton’s Champions League aspirations to the limit. For Arsenal, who face West Ham, Brighton, Southampton and Norwich in their next four league games, the horizon seems much clearer.