Arsenal FC are currently on 47 points, two ahead of second placed Man United, and six clear of Chelsea who beat Newcastle United 2-1 with a controversial late goal at Stamford Bridge. Liverpool, fourth on 36 points and fifth-placed Manchester City will battle it out today while Everton remain sixth on 33.
The 4-1 victory flatters to deceive a sputtering Arsenal performance. Arsenal were slow off the block, looked nervous and gave the ball away too easily. Looking at the first half heroics of an in-form Everton, one cannot fault David Moyes for feeling disappointed in the lop-sided result.
He said: “I don’t think we deserved to lose by the scoreline that we did. I couldn’t see that coming at half-time. Overall I thought we were the better team and the best team lost. We passed the ball better than Arsenal. It was route one Arsenal and we couldn’t cope.”
Arsenal manager Wenger’s decision to rest several key players was a disaster in the making when Tim Cahill scored (his third goal in as many games) after 19 minutes. No doubt a well-deserved lead as Everton directed the show and forced Arsenal into errors more often seen in elementary soccer players. At the end of first half, Arsenal had not found their rhythm while Everton looked set for a third successive home league win over the Gunners. They also reaffirmed their qualities to compete in Europe next season.
Nevertheless, things went rapidly downhill after the interval, it was a different ball game, so to speak. Arsenal drew level within two minutes of the second-half when Eduardo took advantage of some slack defending. Wenger’s faith in the Croatian striker was further rewarded when he made it 2-1 in the 58th minute. The second goal invited criticisms from Moyes who insisted Eduardo used his hand to control the ball. Too bad, as the referee saw it otherwise.
Adebayor, who came on for Eduardo, ensured the match was beyond Everton by making it 3-1 after a mix up between Howard and Yobo allowed him to put the ball into an empty net. In injury time, Rosicky added the icing on the cake by shooting inside Howard’s near post from an excellent exchange with Adebayor and Diaby.
However, the game was marred by two red cards as both teams finished with 10 men. Nicklas Bendtner, who had already been booked, was sent-off for an ugly challenge on Andy Johnson. He is lucky to avoid a red card after his foot landed smack onto Johnson’s shin.
Whether there is intent or malice to hurt a fellow professional footballer, only Bendtner can answer the question himself, but from the replays, it is an unpardonable foul deserving of more serious punishment. Arsene Wenger should give him a pep talk, in case such transgressions become a nasty habit in future matches. Other referees may be less forgiving and that will compromise Arsenal’s chances to win a game.
Everton also finished with 10 men when Mikel Arteta was dismissed after an incident that saw him appear to elbow fellow Spaniard Cesc Fabregas. It appeared to be more like a shrug than an elbow but Fabregas capitalized on the situation with a bit of playacting and influenced the referee in his favor.
Wenger praised his players’ character and insisted they deserved to be where they are. He said: “To be 1-0 down away against a team like Everton and to win 4-1 shows an outstanding desire and hunger in the team. We have shown that we can cope with all kinds of problems that come our way.”
“Everton stopped us from playing our normal game and they played well. The turning point was that we made the most of our set-pieces in the second half. It was important we didn’t concede after we went down to 10 men. But when we scored another goal and Everton had a player sent off then I knew we would win.”
Yes, long balls and dead ball situations. Arsenal tried out a 4-4-2 formation instead of the usual 4-5-1 (a change likely prompted by the draw with Portsmouth) but there was little improvement. In fact, Arsenal players looked ordinary as they did not know what to do with the ball (they did the next best thing by giving it away) in the first half. Everton gained the upper hand as they not only optimized their physical play to contain Arsenal but also attacked in waves whenever they had possession.
However, the major failing of Everton was to remain static when the opponent changed strategies. Little did they expect Arsenal to make drastic changes and start pumping long balls deep into their territory, discarding their usual crisp passing game. The Gunners also harried Everton into ceding free-kicks and corners from which they took full advantage.
For Arsenal fans, I am sure they won’t be complaining whether their goals come from route one or route two so long as Arsenal FC pocket the three points. If I am to rate this Arsenal team now, with half a season gone by, I would say they are nowhere near as dominant or as smooth as the class of 2004.
Nevertheless, the 2007 Arsenal squad is gritty and have shown a knack of turning results around when required. That is the hallmark of champions. The Professor has a technical term for this, known affectionately as character. In fact, I lost count of the number of times Wenger has mentioned “character” - a word bandied about whenever his team fails to impress. They can get the three points but the fear or respect factor from their opponents is gone.
With Arsenal perched on top of the Premiere League standings, I know it is hard for the fans to decide which is more desirable, winning with style or character? I kind of favor the former, what is your choice?