One of the stranger jinxes in English football may be over. Arsenal had lost on their previous three trips to Goodison Park, twice to horribly out-of-form Everton teams. Maybe logic intervened on Mikel Arteta’s fourth visit back to his former club. Or perhaps Leandro Trossard did, the substitute’s wonderfully precise finish giving Arsenal a fourth victory in five league games this season.
There was a sense Arsenal avenged February’s 1-0 defeat in Sean Dyche’s first game in charge of Everton, not merely reversing the scoreline but showing their skill to take the same method – a set-piece – to find a very different way of deciding a match. Not a thumping James Tarkowski header from a corner, but a well-worked routine that culminated in Martin Odegaard slipping in Bukayo Saka, whose cutback brought a deft finish from Trossard, angled in off the far post.
If some of Arteta’s recruitment in 2023 has a contentious feel, Trossard is the sort of signing who can simply be celebrated: a £20m bargain, a creative force last season who has two goals already in this, a player whose versatility makes him an ideal substitute but who has the quality to be decisive. When Gabriel Martinelli went off injured in the first half, Arteta summoned Trossard rather than the benched Kai Havertz; his decision was richly rewarded. Another of his transfer-market gambits mattered less: while David Raya may depose Aaron Ramsdale more frequently, the goalkeeper’s debut was an inconclusive affair. Everton scarcely tested the on-loan Spaniard.
If the game’s best saves, one before the goal and one after, came at Odegaard’s expense, with Pickford parrying two fine efforts, they reflected the growing influence of the captain after the break. And that, in turn, was a sign of his stature. As Arsenal demonstrated more urgency, much of the excellence came from the Norwegian. It is a recurring theme: many a time in Arteta’s reign, victory has stemmed from flair players – often Odegaard or Saka – showing their substance. As the game opened up, Odegaard seized the initiative.
Which was welcome. A first half of dismal drabness brought back unwanted memories of a stalemate in December 2019 in Arsenal’s last game before Arteta and Carlo Ancelotti took charge of the respective clubs; Everton are on their fourth supposedly permanent manager of the Spaniard’s time in north London and, should 777 Partners complete a takeover, a second owner as well.
Whether that entails visiting English football’s second tier remains to be seen. Everton’s start has produced a solitary point in five games. They have had three matches at Goodison Park and lost all without scoring. A relegation six-pointer beckons when Luton visit later this month.
Their gameplan was to defend diligently in a narrow block and they were largely untroubled before the break. The one exception came when Martinelli latched on to Fabio Vieira’s perceptive pass and placed a shot past Pickford. A VAR check later and Eddie Nketiah was spotted offside in the build-up; it meant Martinelli’s wait for a first goal of the season continues, with injury bringing his departure soon after and perhaps extending his drought further.
The 22-year-old headed straight down the tunnel before reappearing on the bench shortly afterwards, and there was concern in the voice of the Gunners boss afterwards when he told Sky Sports: “He [Martinelli] felt something, he felt it in his hammy [hamstring] so he will need to be assessed.”
For Nketiah, meanwhile, it summed up an ineffectual display. If Arteta got other decisions right, perhaps he should have preferred Gabriel Jesus, a regular tormentor of Everton in his Manchester City days.
His choice of Raya was both instructive and irrelevant; Ramsdale, in the PFA Team of the Year for last season, watched on. His new rival had a lone shot on target to field, a tame effort from Idrissa Gueye from long range. He held it.
Everton were passive before conceding. They failed to launch an onslaught after going behind, in part because they just saw too little of the ball. They have no passer of the calibre of Arteta himself when he graced their midfield for six seasons. They eschewed possession at times, having just 22 per cent of the ball before the break.
That figure rose to a meagre 25 per cent by the end. Throwing on centre-forwards, in Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Youssef Chermiti, made little difference when Arsenal controlled the game and, for Everton, other numbers make for miserable reading. They have failed to score in four of five league matches this season and failed to keep a clean sheet in any of them. These two clubs are on the longest unbroken stretches of top-flight football but there is no guarantee they will meet again after this season.
Not after a limp display by Everton. It became a question of whether Arsenal had the wherewithal to break them down. Thanks to Trossard and Odegaard they did and the Goodison curse was lifted.