On a perfect night under the lights it all came together for Ronald Koeman’s Everton. There was intensity, fire, pressing, fluid movement and a passion that permeated the Grand Old Lady with some of the inspiring intervention of old.
Having gone behind to a cruel deflection from a free-kick on the edge of the area by Alexis Sanchez, the Blues responded with gusto and the equalising goal by Seamus Coleman resurrected all of the spirit that has defined Goodison for so long.
Then Ashley Williams scaled new heights for this team this season, climbing above everyone with four minutes remaining to meet Ross Barkley’s corner kick with a header that beat Petr Cech. It was sensational and it was met with song and rejoicing that warmed every Evertonian heart.
Phil Jagielka was dismissed for a second bookable offence late in injury-time and it took goal-line clearances from first Ramiro Funes Mori and then Leighton Baines to protect the victory but there were few dull notes on a fine night for the Toffees.
It was an excellent game of football, a tough, unrelenting affair. Perhaps this will be a defining moment, too, for Koeman and his team. Certainly, there were outstanding displays all around the pitch and the game was worth much more than the three points that came as a result of this titanic encounter.
Skipper Jagielka was restored to the heart of defence alongside Williams, while Aaron Lennon, Enner Valencia and Ross Barkley all returned to the starting XI, too. Gareth Barry was made to wait at least another week to exceed Frank Lampard’s total of 609 Premier League appearances and claim second place on his own behind Ryan Giggs on the list of all-time Premier League appearances. “Gareth is okay, but he’s not the youngest player any more,” Koeman explained. “With a tough period coming up, I need to protect him. We’ve spoken about it and it’s no problem.”
The manager also acknowledged that the team has lost some confidence in recent weeks and suggested that Everton would need to be aggressive and compact against an Arsenal side that was unbeaten since a defeat to Liverpool on the opening day of the season, remaining unbeaten away from home throughout the Premier League campaign.
An early warning of the speed with which the Gunners can break was served up by Sanchez when he seized upon a poor ball and exploited Williams’s semi-stumble on the halfway line before bursting forward on the right flank. Williams regained his footing, sped back quickly and Sanchez was unable to pick out Theo Walcott in the penalty area.
But Everton’s organisation was good, they made it difficult for Arsenal to break them down and produced some threat, especially when Valencia sent Romelu Lukaku clear on the right side of the penalty area for a cross which Francis Coquelin was forced to clear for a corner.
When the breakthrough came for the visitors, Everton were complicit in their own downfall. Opportunities were lost to clear the danger and, when Williams managed only to take out Idrissa Gana Gueye, Jagielka was forced to foul Coquelin on the edge of the area. Referee Mark Clattenburg promptly issued a yellow card and Sanchez took the free-kick, striking his low shot to the right of the wall where it took a big deflection off Williams and, although Maarten Stekelenburg got a hand to the ball, the goalkeeper was unable to keep it out. One-nil to the Arsenal, as was the one-time refrain.
Everton were conceding possession too easily, yet the spirit remained strong and the hosts created chances to test Arsenal’s nerve and resilience. Coleman had a cross into the near post cleared for a corner, Barkley’s corner kick was met at the near post by Valencia but the Ecuadorian’s looping header cleared the crossbar. Then Lennon accelerated in from the left and manoeuvred himself into space but shot over the crossbar. James McCarthy set up Lukaku for another effort which he fired wide and a Barkley free-kick, which was blocked and then teed up by Jagielka, yielded an opening for Lennon but the chance arrived almost too quick to him and he snapped his shot wide.
The crowd roared its approval and encouragement for a sustained period of pressure. Arsenal withstood it but not without a hint of susceptibility. And then the moment came. Gana spread the ball wide to his left to Leighton Baines, the veteran full-back swivelled the ball onto his right foot and measured a perfect cross into the box from which Coleman’s glancing header left no chance for Petr Cech in the Arsenal goal. The intensity that Koeman had spoken of had culminated in a deserved equaliser just prior to half-time and the reaction of the faithful to the whistle signalling the interval conveyed their satisfaction with their team.
McCarthy’s commitment to the tackle, Jagielka’s exertions for the cause, Gana’s continuation of form that promises such a good career at Everton and the positive, productive running of Coleman, Baines and Lennon epitomised everything that was good about the Blues in the opening half. The interval, when it came, was almost an imposition, such was the unity of purpose and overall effectiveness at that moment. Everton had come alive and we waited for more of the same in the second half.
But Arsenal possess the calibre of player who can alter the path of a game in an instant and when Sanchez reached the byline and pulled the ball back for Mesut Ozil, the collective intake of breath was almost audible. The German World Cup winner, from just inside the penalty area, shot over the crossbar, however, and Everton responded again, breaking into the Arsenal half where Baines forced Coquelin into a poorly-timed tackle and a free-kick conceded eight yards outside the area. Barkley’s attempt was blocked by the wall and Arsenal broke again with Hector Bellerin seeking out Ozil, only for Stekelenburg to storm off his line and bravely claim the ball while being clattered by his teammate, Baines.
It was end to end now and Lukaku’s knockdown created an opening for Barkley on his left foot and he narrowly dragged his well-struck effort wide of Cech’s left-hand post. Everton had the bit between their teeth.
Coleman combined with Valencia on the left flank and the low cross into the box intended for Lukaku required an interception by Gabriel as the ball diverted into Cech’s grateful grasp.
Lennon made way for Kevin Mirallas and Barkley almost played him in immediately. Then Lukaku went on one of those powerful, athletic, inspiring runs down the left flank, stormed into the penalty area and Gabriel just managed to get in a challenge to concede a corner when the big Belgian had threatened, briefly but tantalisingly, to emulate that never-to-be-forgotten FA Cup goal against Chelsea. The decibel levels were at their optimum now. Goodison rocked and the Toffees roared. It was all Everton all of a sudden, with Arsenal reeling and struggling to contain the home team’s onslaught.
At 19 years old, Dominic Calvert-Lewin made his Everton debut, coming on for Valencia, who had given his all. But it was the old stagers who secured victory in the end. Barkley’s corner was met by Jagielka’s head and Cech pulled off a remarkable save to concede another corner. Then Williams met Barkley’s subsequent corner kick with the perfect header and Cech was beaten. Goodison erupted and continued to roar.
After Jagielka’s dismissal, Funes Mori cleared off the line from Nacho Montreal, then Baines did likewise to deny Alex Iwobi. When Cech went up for a corner, Everton broke and Mirallas may have added the icing on the cake. The ball wouldn’t quite fall for the Belgian but the damage had already been done. This night was Everton’s.