Cometh the hour, cometh the men. All of them, including Roberto Martinez.
Certainly in the context of the Premier League and the promised land of the Champions League, this was rightly billed as Everton's biggest game since the second leg of the qualifying playoff against Villarreal in 2005. It demanded an immense performance from a group of players who, true to their manager's word, appear to have timed their cohesion, their synergy and the peak of their powers at a perfect moment in the season and the Blues delivered in dream fashion.
Everton's resurgence as a force in the race to finish in the top four has dragged a reluctant media into grudging acceptance that Martinez's men have what it takes to break that stubborn glass ceiling. Still, much of the aftermath of this seismic match will centre around Arsenal – their failings, their lack of fight, their impotence in the Gunners' worst result in this fixture for 25 years – but this was a display of such power, attacking co-ordination, tactical mastery, and single-minded tenacity that the Londoners never really stood a chance.
It's true that in any match, a team will have opportunities to shine and impose their will on their opposition and Arsenal had theirs. They were brief and they met unflappable resistance from Tim Howard and the Blues' back line but, crucially, the visitors were starting from the base of a mountain created by an irressistible Everton who were 2-0 up by the 34th minute and who would go on to have the game killed off at 3-0 with a little more than an hour played. It was, quite simply, brilliant.
Backed by just the kind of raucous din you would hope for, Everton started on the front foot and Leon Osman, deputising as captain once more in the absence of Phil Jagielka, almost got them off to a spectacular start, dipping a delicious half volley inches wide of the far post from the corner of the penalty area.
Unfortunately for him, though, his afternoon would come to a premature end just five minutes later when, in the follow-through of a late, ill-advised sliding tackle on Bacary Sagna, he appeared to catch a boot to the face which would force him off down the tunnel to receive stitches in a laceration below his eyebrow.
In footballing terms, it proved to be something of a blessing in disguise for the Blues because his replacement, Ross Barkley, displaying none of the effects of the calf injury he suffered at Fulham a week ago, came on fired up and energised in the same way he had been in the reverse fixture at the Emirates in December. Where Osman's inclusion promised foot-on-the-ball composure and deliberation against a supposedly superior opposition, Barkley's raw and direct approach complimented an altogether more gung-ho mood in an Everton team that was content to cede the bulk of the possession to Arsenal, contain them, and then pick them off with precision distribution going forward.
Indeed, aside from one nervy moment when Olivier Giroud nudged Sagna's wicked cross past the far post, the Gunners' only attempts to force an early goal had been limited to shots from distance, one across the face of Howard's goal by Lukas Podolski and the other a drive from Mathieu Flamini's from a similar distance that was parried and then gathered by the American before Everton carved them open with barely a quarter of an hour on the clock.
Leighton Baines' pin-point pass dissected the defence and picked Romelu Lukaku out brilliantly but the Belgian's quick shot was foiled well by Wojciech Szczesny's out-stretched foot. The rebound fell invitingly for Steven Naismith, though, who steered it calmly inside the post eliciting bedlam in the stands as the faithful dared to dream of a famous victory.
In contrast to previous years where an early Everton goal against traditional top-four opposition would be followed by uncertainty and a measure of retreat, the Blues retained their forward momentum and went close, first when James McCarthy drilled the ball into the danger zone and it flicked kindly off Naismith's boot for Szczesny to save, and then when the Polish 'keeper made a smart low save to prevent Kevin Mirallas' shot from sneaking inside his near post.
The second breakthrough did come, though, 12 minutes before half time and it was a beautiful illustration of Martinez's tactical acumen. Having identified a weakness on the left side of Arsenal's defence, the Spaniard had deployed Lukaku on the right side of a fluid three-pronged attack that played perfectly to the Belgian striker's strength at bearing down on goal at speed with the ball at his feet.
A fortuitous bounce off Mikel Arteta in the centre circle fell nicely for Mirallas and he found Lukaku with a lovely pass to the right flank. His compatriot did the rest, driving at the heart of the Arsenal defence and gliding past two red shirts before whipping a left-foot shot past Szczesny before he even had time to properly react. 2-0 and Goodison was bouncing.
Arsenal needed to respond and they did escalate their game to engineer their best spell thus far in the closing 10 minutes of the half but Howard was equal to Podolski's fierce drive that he cannoned into the turf forcing the American into an acrobatic one-handed save to push the ball over the crossbar.
With a two-goal cushion, Everton were guilty somewhat of starting the second period with a little less composure and intensity with both Mirallas and the otherwise flawless John Stones playing themselves into trouble in dangerous areas. Mirallas' attempt to dribble away from his own byline ended with Howard having to scramble the ball away from Giroud's feet and when Stones was dispossessed by Santi Cazorla, Flamini could only end the move by sliding a shot well wide.
By contrast, in the 61st minute, when Sagna was caught dithering just inside Everton's half, Mirallas made the Frenchman pay for his sloppiness. The Belgian forward raced away into opposition territory and slipped the ball down the channel to meet Naismith's run. Szczesny did well to push the ball away before the Scot could take it around him but in the desperate footrace to the loose ball between Mirallas and Arteta, the latter could only prod the ball into his own net to make it a staggering 3-0 to the Blues.
As if on cue, the clouds parted to bathe the Grand Old Lady in sunshine, symbolic perhaps of the re-emergence of a club from a long winter frozen out of its rightful place among English football's elite.
Save for a great chance for Barkley who was set up in acres of space in the box by the ever-alert Lukaku that the 20 year-old could only drive straight at the goalkeeper and a rasping drive from substitute Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain that thumped off Howard's bar, the game was effectively over as a contest. That left the home side to settle back into their familiar possession game, eliciting joyous "olés" from the crowd as they strung together a long sequence of passes to toy with their beaten and dejected opponents.
Afforded the luxury to showboat a little, Seamus Coleman brought out a couple of party tricks, first surging away from his own area with a 30-yard ball-juggling act and then embarrassing Cazorla with a mesmerising heel flick that left the Spaniard incredulous. And there was a last act of crowd-pleasing aggro between Barkley and Arteta in which the young midfielder reacted to an apparent elbow by the Arsenal man by shoving him to the floor. Yet more symbolism on a tremendous day for Everton Football Club – the Blues squared up toe-to-toe with an experienced and talented outfit and simply swatted them aside.
Steven Naismith would officially garner the man-of-the-match accolades but it was a day where such distinctions were rendered moot by a complete team performance from front to back. From Howard's heroics in goal and the central defensive rocks in front of him to Coleman's tricks and Baines' sublime passing; from the unceasing industry and covering by Barry and McCarthy to the invention and drive of Barkley and Mirallas; from Naismith's movement and composure in front of goal to the unbridled power and hunger of Lukaku in full flight... every player contributed to one of the finest games Goodison has witnessed in recent years.
Whether this further crystallises an emphatic shift in the balance of power between these two clubs in the context of this season's top four remains to be seen over the final month of the campaign. Arsene Wenger's side have the benefit of a soft run-in over their final five games but they have also shown that they can drop points against mediocre opposition as self doubt has crept in in recent weeks. Everton, meanwhile, have delivered an unmistakable message that they no longer fear any of the Premier League's moneyed big boys and they clearly have momentum and a growing self-belief that, were in not for their more challenging schedule, they would bet hot favourites to unseat Arsenal from a position in the Champions League spots they have almost taken for granted over 16 years of repeat qualification.
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773 Posted 07/04/2014 at 22:48:36
He is much more than a flair forward when he's prepared to put a shift in and his role on the third goal was a great example of that: first muscling Sagna into the error and then having the desire to get to the loose ball that Arteta poked into his own net.
775 Posted 07/04/2014 at 23:29:40
And oh my was that 3rd goal sweet I was hoping it would be an own goal before I saw the replay, you can have that you badge grabbing injury feigning little snide.
780 Posted 07/04/2014 at 23:53:26
798 Posted 08/04/2014 at 05:04:00
Many believe this to be a transition season for the team and while there is no doubt that the players have been asked to approach games with a very different mindset, most of them have played together long enough. I think we were entitled to expect them to be able to take different ideas into their stride
I would argue that the biggest change we have witnessed has been in our manager and I would argue that recent results and performances prove it. . Of course I'm not suggesting Martinez has changed his personality. If anything his outlook now is even more positive than it was when he first Breezed into Goodison - if thats at all possible.
Martinez in my eyes was rather naive when he first arrived, his promises of standing eyeball to eyeball with the other teams in the top six, sounded great, but the reality is, he was like a naive young boxer walking onto knock out blows from a seasoned counter punchers, by going after them, he was simply playing into their hands.
These matches may have appeared close, we had enjoyed by far the greater possesion, but in my opinion teams like Spurs and Chelsea allowed us to have it, they simply lay in wait and ambushed us.
Of course these matches didnt all go that way, some teams repeatedly counterd us and we were battered. . . .
Fortunately these lessons have not been wasted on our boy, this time it was us doing the battering, this time it was us allowing the opposition to have the Lions share of possesion in area's that didnt concern us. WE were the preditors lying in wait. . . It may not have been to the liking of the "educated" statos, but in terms of possesion we seem to have recently traded quantity for quality. There is a drive and purpose to our play, we seem to have rid ourselves of the habit of walking aimlessly forward onto cagey counter punchers . .and in the process of doing so, we have laid waste to the argument that the only alternative to purposeless "TikaTaka" is the big boot.
We've had a positive, innovative, intelligent manager all season . ..now we've got a street wise one too who is begining to come to terms with life at the very top end.
How wonderful was it to see the boys get the tricks out once the result was secured.
Great article by the way Lyndon, but I don't agree with you're last point about Arsenal having a soft run in, we are all assuming they will win all of their remaining games, but I watched them at the end on Saturday, they couldnt get off the pitch quick enough. Wenger has got his work cut out trying to get that group of players to believe any game can be easy
841 Posted 08/04/2014 at 12:21:11
985 Posted 09/04/2014 at 00:15:37
487 Posted 12/04/2014 at 07:04:07
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