Prior to Everton’s stirring 2-0 win over Chelsea last month, you had to go back two years for the Toffees’ last win over top-six opposition. Under Marco Silva, they have now beaten one of the current elite clubs twice in the space of two weeks.
Before today, it was also more than two years since an Everton side earned three successive clean sheets but thanks to a solitary Phil Jagielka goal and a laudably resilient performance against a team looking to leapfrog their neighbours, Tottenham, into third place, they have now seen off three London teams in a row without Jordan Pickford’s goal having been breached.
The England international was one of the talking points in the lead up to this clash with Arsenal at Goodison Park given his “come to Jesus” meeting with Silva and Marcel Brands in the wake of the altercation in which he was involved in Sunderland that was caught on video. His participation in this contest was relegated to a footnote, however, thanks to an impressive performance by Everton’s outfield players that meant Pickford was barely troubled.
A wild punch straight to Aaron Ramsey early in the second half might have been punished on a different day but, thankfully, the Welshman volleyed over and apart from a couple of tame efforts on his goal, Pickford’s role mostly centred around his distribution from the back which was, pleasingly, hugely improved.
Instead, the focus was, rightly, on a Blues display under-pinned by determined and impressive defending, phenomenal work-rate throughout the side and the hit-and-miss nature of Everton’s counter-attacking which, if they could get right, would make them a seriously dangerous team.
This could and should have been an even more handsome victory but Silva’s men have found turning those quick transitions and interceptions into goals a challenge all season. Whether it’s technique or a lack of confidence, there is a shortage of clinical attacking in the final third that will either be solved by coaching or the recruitment of top quality players but the resolution of that problem is a tantalising prospect.
Everton racked up 23 shots over the 90 minutes but only six on target and while good goalkeeping by Bernd Leno was partially responsible for the fact that the home side only managed to score once, poor ball control and decision-making also prevented this from being a hiding for an Arsenal team that hasn’t travelled well all season.
The Gunners certainly seemed up for the challenge of registering what would have been just their second away win of 2019 as they came out of the traps in purposeful mood. It quickly became apparent, however, that they were going up against an obdurate and indefatigable Everton side that has rediscovered the pressing and harrying posture that made them so strong before everything derailed last December.
And the Blues took just 10 minutes to make the breakthrough via the somewhat unlikely source of Phil Jagielka, a player who wasn’t even supposed to be on the pitch. Silva had named an unchanged XI but with Michael Keane unable to shake off the effects of a virus, the club skipper stepped into the team and was on hand to tuck home what would prove to be the winning goal.
There was a note of controversy in the assessment of the game afterwards ( redundant in the grand scheme of things, even if it had any merit, given how richly Everton deserved the win), with some observers of television replays suggesting that Lucas Digne had stepped over the touchline in delivering one of his tomahawk throw-ins but it was rightly deemed legal by the officials as Jagielka flicked it on and then profited from a fortunate ricochet when Dominic Calvert-Lewin’s header fell to him in front of goal and he couldn’t miss.
From then on, it was a question of Everton suffocating the visitors with tireless closing down — Idrissa Gueye defied belief at times with his relentless tenacity and the amount of ground he covered, André Gomes was robust and uncompromising alongside him, while Calvert-Lewin ran the Gunners’ back three ragged throughout — remaining on the front foot for the majority of the first half but just lacking the killer instinct to extend their lead in the way that their overall performance warranted.
Richarlison was picked out by a quite brilliant cross-field ball by Lucas Digne but failed to make the most of it, a show-stopping heel flick from Bernard – the Braziilan gets better and better by the week in a Blue jersey – was inches away from putting André Gomes in but Sokratis Papastathopoulos nipped in ahead of the Portuguese while Gueye skewed a shot well wide and Gylfi Sigurdsson planted a fairly tame 25-yard curler into Leno’s arms.
Frustrated by his own team’s lack of impetus during the first 45 minutes, Unai Emery made a double switch at the break, withdrawing Sead Kolasinac and Mohamed Elneny and introducing Ramsey and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.
Initially it appeared as though it would have the effect the Spaniard had desired as Pickford fisted an awkward, high cross straight at the Welshman but his side-foot volley flew over while Alexandre Lacazette might have done better when he connected with a ball over the top but his header was comfortable for Pickford.
As the game opened up, however, a slew of opportunities would open up for Everton at the other end that they just couldn’t convert into further goals. Bernard latched onto Ainsley Maitland-Niles’s poor backwards header but eschewed a lobbed attempt and saw his shot blocked by the goalkeeper who had closed down the angle.
Sigurdsson then volleyed over, Richarlison drove a left-footer wide, and Calvert-Lewin held onto the ball too long as Everton attacked with superior numbers and with Bernard free in the left channel, the young striker ended up running into traffic and was dispossessed.
Henrik Mkhitaryan went as close as Arsenal would come when he cut across the box and fizzed a shot a couple of feet past the post while back at the other end, Everton were getting their players into some promising positions with some excellent passing but a second goal remained elusive.
Richarlison galloped down the right flank once more but his square pass to Sigurdsson was, perhaps, a fraction too far back and the midfielder could only despatch a first-time shot straight at Leno. Sokratis blocked another effort from the Icelandic international, Richarlison sliced arguably the best chance wide when he popped up in space in the box and Leno foiled Bernard a final time by beating away his shot in the closing stages.
Arsenal made sporadic attempts to find an equaliser as full time approached but Everton were able to fairly comfortably see the game out with a flurry of late substitutions.
Having looked so bereft of answers at times this season, Silva finally looks as though he is finding his feet again at Goodison Park now with some real signs of progress. As galling as the defeat at Newcastle was, that second-half collapse at St James’ Park (and, perhaps, 45 shaky minutes before half-time against Chelsea) stands as an aberration in a six-match sequence that has yielded four wins, a goalless draw in the Merseyside derby, and progress back up the table to the point that the Blues are back to within a point of seventh place, albeit having played a game more than two of their rivals for that slot.
Defensively, with the form of Kurt Zouma in particular but supported also by consistency at both full-back positions and the Eveready battery that is Gueye in front of them, Everton are back to being a team that is difficult to break down and which has only conceded goals in one of those last six fixtures.
That is an important platform on which Silva and Marcel Brands can build this summer and it has restored optimism that after a turbulent season of setbacks and discovery, this Everton team is back on track and moving in the right direction.
Everton face Arsenal on Sunday looking to build on successive 2-0 victories that have propelled them back into the conversation around who will finish “best of the rest” behind the big six this season.
Wins over Chelsea and West Ham have transformed the mood around the Blues' camp and helped to dispel the clouds that formed following the ugly 3-2 reverse at Newcastle last month.
Currently sitting in 10th and four points behind Wolves in seventh with six games to play, Marco Silva's team are now hoping to put together a run of results that would see them leapfrog the teams above them and, possibly, secure a Europa League qualification spot.
They face a Gunners side that hasn't lost in the Premier League since they were beaten by title-chasing Manchester City in early February but that run includes just two away games, a 1-1 draw against Tottenham at Wembley and a 2-1 win at doomed Huddersfield Town.
Indeed, apart from that victory at the John Smiths Stadium, you have to go back to late November for the last time Arsenal won on their travels but, nevertheless, they are well positioned to finish in the top four and qualify for the Champions League, either at Spurs's or Chelsea's expense.
That less-than-stellar away record will encourage Silva, however, as he seeks to end what has been a turbulent campaign on a strong note. He will likely keep an unchanged side from the one that was so convincing at the London Stadium last weekend and which would include Jordan Pickford who has been disciplined by the club but is expected to play on Sunday.
Pickford was warned about his conduct after footage emerged of his involvement in a scrap outside a Sunderland bar last weekend. The goalkeeper reacted to derogatory comments about his fiancée, Megan Davison, and had to be physically restrained during an altercation outside the bar.
“The first chat we had at the beginning of the week I was clear with him and in that moment the feedback he gave me was that it was a big lesson what had happened,” Silva said of the conversation he and Director of Football, Marcel Brands had with Pickford at Finch Farm this week.
“It is finished ... but I will repeat to you because we want to be clear: no one was happy with the situation and the club is clear also.”
An unchanged lineup would mean Dominic Calvert-Lewin continuing as the lone striker between Richarlison and Bernard and ahead of Gylfi Sigurdsson, a quartet that has emerged as the most effective attacking unit at the manager's disposal.
It would see Theo Walcott, who failed to cement a starting berth despite a number of opportunities in February and March, being named on the bench again, an issue that was raised in Silva's pre-match press conference.
"Why not include Theo [in our plans]?” the Portuguese said when asked about the former Arsenal winger's future. “He is our player, not just with one or two years on his contract but with more years.
"He's fighting to help us, fighting to take his place in the starting 11 again and he is part of our plans like all the other players.”
Yerry Mina is the only absentee through injury as he recovers from a serious hamstring tear but the strong partnership of Michael Keane and Kurt Zouma means that the Colombian would have been an unlikely starter even if he were fit.
Unai Emery, meanwhile, has injury concerns over midfielder Granit Xhaka and defender Laurent Koscielny while his midfielder enforcer, Lucas Torreira, misses out through suspension.
With neither Watford nor Wolves in action this weekend and Leicester not playing Newcastle until midweek, Everton could again close the gap to seventh to a point if they can record another stirring home victory over a top-six club at Goodison Park.
The occasion is likely to produce the kind of atmosphere that Silva has said is so important to his team's chances of success and another London scalp would further bolster the manager's standing ahead of another important summer of recruitment.
Kick-off: 2:05pm, Sunday 7 April, 2019
Referee: Kevin Friend
Last Time: Everton 2 - 5 Arsenal
Predicted Line-up: Pickford, Coleman, Keane, Zouma, Digne, Gueye, Gomes, Sigurdsson, Bernard, Richarlison, Calvert-Lewin