‘Fuck off you fucking Kopite they haven’t even kicked off yet.’
That was the reply the poor old fella in the chippy on Goodison Road got when he informed his hungry customers that Arsenal had taken a first-minute lead through Theo Walcott. Not so much shooting the messenger as giving the messenger a dig with a rifle butt and then dunking his face in one of the fryers full of sizzling oil.
Apparently it was decent goal by the Gunners, even if the shot – at the end of a move started by Walcott and involving an exchange of passes with Aaron Ramsey – took a nick off Tony Hibbert on the way into the top corner.
Hibbert was returning after an injury lay-off that has perhaps made everyone realise that his particular qualities are actually quite important to the team. Granted, he’s not exactly ‘swashbuckling’ in his attacking play, but he knows his limits, plays to them and makes very few defensive errors. Most importantly, his teammates trust him and he hardly put a foot wrong all night.
Darron Gibson also made a long-awaited comeback and had an instant impact. Again, the other players trust him and while never spectacular he doesn’t give the ball away and almost always wins his physical battles. The positive correlation between his presence in the side and the performances and results is no statistical coincidence.
After the initial shock of conceding after 52 seconds Everton eventually settled and were easily a match for an Arsenal team that still tries to do all the right things but simply doesn’t have the same quality of players any more. They are all decent enough but rather than the incisive, almost unstoppable football that they played during their best spells under Arsene Wenger, they now employ a style that you used to associate with West Ham or Tottenham, i.e. nice enough when they are allowed to play, and they will have the odd great result when it’s ‘their night’, but no one genuinely fears them.
Everton have problems of their own of late, but overall this was certainly a step up from the performance against Norwich. The return of Marouane Fellaini was a boost and the Belgian levelled the scores on 27 minutes. Steven Pienaar, another who was back to something approaching his best form, forced an error from Mikel Arteta that saw the ball break loose to Fellaini, 25 yards from goal. Using Thomas Vermaelan as a shield to deceive Wojciech Szczesny, he curled a languid left-footed shot low into the bottom corner of the Park End goal before leaving a beacon-cheeked Moyes hugging thin air as he legged halfway to the Spellow to celebrate.
For the remainder of the half and the opening 20 minutes of the second it was Everton who did almost all of the attacking. Nikica Jelavic had another luckless night in front of goal but there was a marked improvement in his all-round play. The Croation blazed a good chance over after brilliantly juggling the ball past the uncomfortable frame of Per Mertesacker and then rather rashly provoked an offside flag when taking the ball off the toe of the rampaging Leighton Baines.
He was far more aggressive and tenacious though, with the look of someone perhaps responding to a bit of criticism. If he continues in the same vein then the goals will definitely come eventually.
Other chances went begging in the second half, with the ball flashed across the face of the Arsenal goal on more than one occasion and Szczesny making a great save from a crashing Sylvain Distin header.
The game eventually became comically stretched by the closing stages, by which time Gibson had limped off, replaced by Thomas Hitzlsperger, but neither side ever looked totally convincing in their bid for a late winner. Moyes complained afterwards that an Arteta challenge on Pienaar was a Stonewall penalty – so blatant that an American Civil War general noticed it – but at the time it never seemed particularly cut and dried. In other words, ‘If it had gone the other way…’ etc, etc.
A point against Arsenal, and a much improved performance, should be cause for renewed optimism, but as we’ve said before, the spunking of so many leads against the shit teams means we no longer have the luxury seeing a draw at home against anyone as a ‘decent point’.
The news that Baines has succumbed to a hamstring strain – after a run of unbroken games that seems to go back to the 1970s – is also rather sobering to say the least.