EVERTON 3 (Naismith 14, Lukaku 34, Arteta og 61) – ARSENAL 0
The Gunners, like the Toffees, are one of the great traditional English football clubs, with a past which is woven into the history of our national game. They are not an otherwise unremarkable club unexpectedly and quite suddenly vaulted to the heights thanks to an injection of Arab petro-dollars or mysteriously acquired roubles. Arsenal are a proper club with a glittering past. We are rightly jealous of the advances they have made over the last fifteen years or so which have sustained them in the new elite of the Premier League, where once we slugged it out as evenly matched rivals. For many Arsenal are the template of the club Everton want to be. They have a progressive manager who has trademarked their style of attractive, attacking football; they consistently finish in the top four and qualify for the Champions League; they have a new state-of-the-art, cash generative, stadium and a disciplined financial model which has enabled them to become essentially self-financing and to avoid the dubious embrace of a sugar-daddy. For all these reasons and more the annual visit of Arsenal is always a special fixture; we measure our progress, or lack of it, against them.
It’s fair to say that it was at the reverse fixture at the Emirates back in early December, a 1-1 draw, that the metropolitan media were introduced to the revolution which Roberto Martinez has instituted at Everton. They saw Ross Barkley take a game by the scruff of the neck and Gerard Deulofeu score a stunning solo goal; both showing a national audience what the ‘new’ Everton was about.
Prior to this re-match the pressure was on and expectations high. Coming off five consecutive league wins and sitting just four points behind a Gunners team that had been misfiring of late, and holding a game in hand, the chase for fourth place was alive. After impressive, but very different wins, at Newcastle and Fulham, Martinez shuffled his attacking mid-field trio yet again, leaving Barkley and Deulofeu on the bench, while handing Mirallas his first start in a couple of weeks and Naismith his first in a month and retaining skipper Leon Osman. As fate, or luck, would have it Martinez’s careful selection strategy was junked within ten minutes after Osman went off with a bloody black-eye and was replaced by Barkley. Despite this enforced change Martinez did not alter the shape of the team which was a new and, as always with Martinez, highly fluid 4-3-3 set-up with Lukaku wide right, Naismith in the centre as a deep-lying, or false 9, and Mirallas wide left, with McCarthy, Barry and Osman – now Barkley – behind them. A set-up which accommodated both Lukaku and Naismith and pitted strong-man Lukaku against the perceived ‘weak link’ of Nacho Monreal at left back.
We have been unstinting in our praise of Steven Naismith on this site. He has scored a number of pivotal goals against top class opposition, often as a substitute, or until the last 3 months, playing in his less favoured position out wide. It was probably against Stevenage in the FA Cup, where he played as a deep lying centre-forward and scored twice, that Martinez started to develop his thinking about Naismith and after that game he vowed to use him more often down the middle. Clearly though doing it against Stevenage and against the duo of Mertesacker / Vermaelen are very different challenges.
And so to Sunday. Naismith executed his brief to perfection. Flitting into space, drawing the central defenders into areas they did not want to be, defenders who were also distracted by, and anxious about, the whereabouts of Lukaku. A discomfiture which was to prove their undoing. On fourteen minutes a counter attack led by Baines found Lukaku, momentarily occupying the conventional centre-forward position, just inside the penalty area. His control and left-footed shot were virtually instantaneous, Szczesny saved with his legs but could not control the rebound which cannoned out to Naismith in space and the Scot calmly stroked the ball home.
On thirty four minutes another incisive pass, this time from Kevin Mirallas, found Lukaku wide on the right. The striker attacked at pace, breaking inside and past Monreal and then Vermaelen. Coming in from the right opened his favoured left foot and his shot was low, powerful and accurate and beat Szczesny to his right.
Kevin Mirallas takes his defensive responsibilities seriously. He worked hard all afternoon in front of, alongside and occasionally behind Leighton Baines. One alarming intervention aside, which saw him dwell on the ball too long and then miss-control inside his own penalty area, his contribution was solid, all about team work and attacking in the final third. So it was fully deserved that the goal which put this game to bed was a virtual solo effort initiated and created by Mirallas. He closed down and out-muscled Bacary Sagna on the half-way line, counter attacked at speed, played a perfectly weighted pass to Naismith whose effort was blocked by Szczesny into the path of Mirallas who as he shot was tackled by Arteta; a coming together which merely helped the ball loop into the net.
Roberto Martinez has a remarkable facility to set up his teams and tailor his tactics in a way which causes the opposition maximum discomfort. He did it for Wigan at Goodison last season, at Wembley against Manchester City and for Everton this season most notably at home to Chelsea and at Old Trafford, the Emirates and Newcastle, and then here. Not only has he driven the change from the Moyes era of underdogs armed only with blood, tears, toil and sweat to a philosophy of attacking, possession based football which says ‘yes we can’, but he has projected the club to a higher level of expectation. Here he comprehensively out-thought Arsene Wenger. His game plan executed to perfection yielded the result. And he did it with a team containing two 20 year olds and a 19 year old. All remarkable accomplishments in his first season, a season which might yet deliver a remarkable denouement.
Everton (4-3-3): Howard; Coleman, Stones, Distin, Stones; McCarthy, Osman© (Barkley 10), Barry; Lukaku (Deulofeu 86), Naismith (McGeady), Mirallas
Unused subs: Robles, Hibbert, Garbutt, Alcaraz
ARSENAL (4-2-3-1: Szczesny; Sagna, Mertesacker, Vermaelen©, Monreal; Arteta, Flamini (Ramsey 66); Rosicky, Cazorla, Podolski (Oxlade-Chamberlain 66); Giroud (Sanogo 71)
Unused subs: Viviano, Jenkinson, Bellerin, Kallstrom
Booked: Arteta, Flamini
Ref: Martin Atkinson