That was a question in the back of my mind on Saturday when I went up to visit Goodison for the first time, courtesy of Total Arsenal finding himself with a spare ticket.
Any chance to see Arsenal play is a pretty good time in my book. But I have to say, I went
to this game with considerable trepidation. We had crashed out of two cups in the
previous five days, and our injury depleted squad was bound to be tired, whereas Everton
were fresh from a week’s rest after a famous victory. It was all teed up for the final nail to
be hammered into our season; or just maybe it was the right moment for the long awaited
The journey north from Oxford didn’t provide encouragement. Around me in the carriage
there were a smattering of conversations from traveling Gooners, almost all bemoaning
our missed chances, lack of class signings and the familiar sense of complacency against
sides that had been there for the beating. It didn’t sound like many of the away support
were traveling with high confidence.
Arriving at Lime Street station and meeting up with TA – two punctual trains; maybe things were looking up? We then had to navigate our way to the grounds. This should have been pretty straightforward. But we had arrived comfortably early, before the main crowds, and despite being directed twice to the fan bus loading area, it took us some time to find our bus. Arriving at the grounds finally and things were warming up. A sea of blue and white before us circling the grounds, with beer, pies, hot dogs and fish and chips being consumed in industrial quantities. Little clusters of red and white weaved in between.
The atmosphere was entirely benign, with no sense of tension between the opposing fans nor any sense of threat in the air.
Into the grounds after a swift beer and the away support were in good voice already. We
watched the Arsenal players taking pot shots in front of us – I have to say, not without
great success! The wild swipes that were being taken, most of them missing the goal
entirely, did not inspire confidence that the shooting boots were on today. Elneny was
particularly wide of the mark I noticed. And then the game was off! It was end to end play,
with their attacks down our left side, whilst we attacked down both flanks, perhaps more
down our left wing in the early stages. And before any pattern had settled we scored. I
didn’t register the through ball, but I watched in slow motion with my mouth opening as
Danny rounded the keeper and stayed calm with his finish. And then the place erupted!
The settling effect on the fans, as well as the players was immediate and palpable.
The singing never stopped from there. A couple of the cheer leaders were standing just in
front of TA and me. They never let the singing pause for more than a few of seconds. I
joined in a couple of times, to be honest in a very restrained way – and yet when I came
out of the grounds I was hoarse! How those guys kept going at full bore all through the
game is quite beyond me. That’s commitment though!
The game continued pretty much end to end, with more of the play coming over to our
right flank. Up front our formation looked quite difficult to define. Danny often seemed to be over on the left, with Iwobi more central. Sanchez was his usual industrious self, direct and hard running, but not always taking the ball into dangerous areas. The movement was constant, but Ozil was having a relatively quiet day, not able to join things up as he can. The people who really caught the eye were Elneny and Coq; for me Elneny stood out in the first half, but faded a bit in the second. But the Coq was on top form all the way through the game. It wasn’t great thumping tackles, but they were running everywhere, intercepting, picking up loose balls while others were scrapping and keeping things tidy in front of our back line. They were simply outstanding, controlled the midfield and made life easy for our CBs.
The back line also looked solid. Both Gabby and Kos had some hard physical encounters
with Lukaku, and they stayed strong through these, leaving the Everton attack rendered
pretty blunt. Lukaku is absolutely massive by the way! I knew he was big of course, but in
the flesh he is even bigger than on TV. Our CBs did really well against him, and on this
showing he would not be a player who would make our first 11 visibly stronger. The other
player who looked notably bigger was Ospina – he is no midget by any means, and looked
a very good quality GK to have as our first reserve. Our full backs both had solid games,
with Bellerin perhaps catching the eye more, though that reflects Nacho’s style – he does
everything with the minimum of fuss but the maximum effect.
The second goal came after a period of more sustained pressure on us. We seemed to be
standing back more and this was beginning to worry me. Was it a tactic to draw them out,
or just absorbing pressure? I don’t know, but it worked! I had just expressed my concern
that we were going to concede when, quick as a flash we countered, Bellerin passed
forward, and Iwobi controlled and finished like a quality striker. What a wonderful way for
a talented young player to mark his first start. We can only hope that this really propels his game forward through added confidence. We had the game secure and the first half
ended with some slick movements of players relieved of their tension and out to enjoy
themselves and remind people what a good team this Arsenal are.
The second half was more of a routine affair. Our players defended more than in the first
and a couple appeared to tire a bit. But it never felt anxious. The subs came, but didn’t
really inject anything much new. I confess I’m not convinced by Gibbs as a defensive sub;
it always seems to signal we are sitting back now, and that isn’t the formation that makes
us play our best. Giroud’s goal, or its ruling out, was a complete mystery to those in line
with it. And Goodison not having much in the way of any screen replay system meant it
remained that way for the rest of the game. We looked comfortable and it was a great way
to spend the last 45 min, secure that we would be returning home with smiles on our
Stopping for some food we took our reflections at the end of the game. Firstly, it was great
that Wenger had held faith with his youth and players who had shown form – Danny and
Iwobi in particular. Elneny is looking good value; not yet a world beater, but a good player
and improving. Coq is back to his best, totally dominant form. Lack of goals from Giroud
and the absent Walcott remain a worry. What’s the story with Mert – is he being given a
prod by Wenger or has he been supplanted in the order of merit? And finally, though it was
the much awaited bounce back, we needed to remember that Everton really were pretty
poor on the day; I could not (and still can’t) think of a single blues player who stood out on
merit from that performance.
But the game gives us hope. My view remains that if we win all our remaining games we
will win the league. I doubt we will be able to do it sadly, but I’ve not given up. Whatever
the final positions, we need to show fight and develop some form, as we don’t need to be
looking over our shoulders either. But at least we have an interlull without overwhelming
angst to deal with! A great day to be a Gooner; let’s hope for more next weekend!