Mikel Arteta’s encouraging rebuilding job at Arsenal continued with a thrilling victory over a stubborn Everton, a result that could have a big say in the race for European football next season.
The Spaniard had Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang largely to thank for the outcome after the striker scored twice, including the winner – taking his personal goals tally to 19 for the season and an impressive 60 in 95 games for the Gunners.
The see-saw game could not have got off to a worse start for Arteta’s side, though, as their shambolic defending allowed Dominic Calvert-Lewin to overhead kick Everton into the lead following a Gylfi Sigurdsson free-kick after just 49 seconds.
But the Gunners slowly wrestled control of the game away from the visitors, with Eddie Nketiah side-footing a volley home to draw them level from early substitute Bukayo Saka’s superb left-wing cross, before Aubameyang slotted them into the lead.
Their progress was again checked when Richarlison capitalised on yet more defensive frailty to poke Everton level just before half-time, but Aubameyang headed the home side back ahead 26 seconds after the break.
Everton had chances to get at least a point, but Calvert-Lewin saw a cross agonisingly elude his slide before firing straight at Leno from close range.
The win means Arsenal remain unbeaten in 2020 and gives them back-to-back league victories for the first time since the opening two matches of the campaign.
Should Manchester City’s Champions League ban be upheld, eighth place in the Premier League could be enough to qualify for the Europa League, and the top five could be good enough for Europe’s premier club competition. The Gunners are now just two points off Burnley in eighth and four points behind fifth-placed Manchester United.
Everton, who have European aspirations of their own following a run of five games unbeaten prior to this, are 11th but still in the mix, a point worse off than the Gunners.
Arteta slowly making his mark
Arteta was in the stands at Goodison Park for the reverse fixture in December, when interim head coach Freddie Ljungberg led the Gunners to a 0-0 draw against a Duncan Ferguson-managed Toffees.
But this is now very much the Spaniard’s side, and while he is in credit from his 12 games so far, there is still clear work to be done.
Having played in Athens in the Europa League on Thursday with a side that included five of the 11 that started against Everton, the Gunners had significantly less recovery and preparation time than the Toffees, who last played on 8 February.
Arsenal’s quick turnaround can be no excuse for their shambolic start to this contest and their lacklustre defending, though.
Their back four was all at sea in the first minute when Sigurdsson’s free-kick was floated in and they failed to react to prevent Calvert-Lewin’s finish. It probably wasn’t wise of Shkodran Mustafi to dye his hair light grey, thus making himself all the more conspicuous, while David Luiz responded by berating all those in red around him.
They were equally culpable in added time at the end of the first half, missing crucial headers before Mina and then Richarlison got the crucial touches.
However, as Arteta has been at pains to point out in the early weeks of his tenure, the Gunners are a work in progress and one that will not necessarily improve at lightning pace.
But the obvious negatives were outweighed by the positives he can take from the game – not least the continued impressive displays of some of his young players and the ongoing potency of Aubameyang.
It was somewhat surprising to see 18-year-old wing-back Saka initially left out, but an injury to Sead Kolasinac meant he was unleashed early on, and he quickly made his presence felt with a wicked curling cross for the opener.
The scorer of that goal, Nketiah, has had a circuitous route to the Arsenal first team this season, via a frustrating loan spell at Leeds, but he is now showing why he has been likened to Ian Wright, and his finish was one that the Gunners’ leading all-time goalscorer would have been proud of.
What more can be said about Aubameyang? He was Arsenal’s brightest light during recent difficult times and is now thriving as the team strives to lift itself to his standards.