Goalscoring substitute Gerard Deulofeu or rising England star Ross Barkley may have been the more glamorous performances from Everton's engrossing draw at Arsenal on Sunday but the role played by James McCarthy was integral in earning a well-deserved point at Emirates Stadium.
The Scottish-born Republic of Ireland international is at times even overshadowed by on-loan team-mate Gareth Barry when praise is being lavished on this current Everton squad but his contribution should not be underestimated.
McCarthy was integral against Arsene Wenger's table-topping team, who had taken the lead through Mesut Ozil in the 80th minute before Deulofeu's equaliser four minutes later, and his role was key in helping Roberto Martinez's men to the point which keeps them fifth in the Premier League.
At just 23-years-old, McCarthy's experienced performance demonstrated he is already fulfilling the potential which convinced Martinez to bring the central midfielder with him from Wigan Athletic in a £13million deal this summer.
Arsenal recalled striker Olivier Giroud along with full-back Kieran Gibbs, who had started on the bench for the midweek win over Hull City. Midfielders Jack Wilshere and Mikel Arteta were also back in the first XI after their midweek rest among the substitutes. England forward Theo Walcott was again on the bench.
Everton were looking to build on their 1-0 win at Manchester United and Romelu Lukaku, on loan from Chelsea, again led the attack in an unchanged XI from that side who silenced Old Trafford. Ross Barkley was the man tasked with supplying the support from midfield for lone striker Lukaku. Bryan Oviedo, the goalscoring hero of the victory over United, kept his place in the absence of injured left-back Leighton Baines. McCarthy, meanwhile, was alongside Barry as the two men who sat in deep midfield.
Story of the game
Sky Sports expert and former Manchester United defender Gary Neville summed it up midway through the first half when he said: "When we used to play against Arsenal, they had players in between your structure and they were difficult to know where they were. But they are actually on the other foot today. Everton are taking up fantastic positions - Kevin Mirallas and Steven Pienaar are coming off the wide positions, the full-backs are wide and Barkley is picking up intelligent areas in the pitch."
Everton, passing in triangles and with players drifting in between the lines of Arsenal's formation, were superb for the opening 40 minutes and finished the first half with 317 passes to their hosts' 196. Martinez's visitors also had a superior passing accuracy of 87.07 per cent compared to Arsenal's 75.51%. Additionally, Everton had enjoyed 137 more touches of the ball than their opponents.
|Total Passes ( Excl Crosses & Corners )||196||317|
It is rare that Arsenal are out-passed to such an extent, with their first-half possession of 37.9% proving to be less than their record overall Premier League match lows at the Emirates against Manchester City last season (40%) and Liverpool in 2008 (42%). The key factor in Arsenal's difficulties was McCarthy, whose 97% pass completion rate in the first half was the best of any player on the field. The midfielder sat in the centre circle alongside Barry and dictated play as Everton spread their formation to expose a compact Arsenal. Barry and McCarthy, especially, were providing the possession with a platform to the likes of Barkley, who without that service would not have been able to go and hurt Arsenal in the manner in which Neville had described.
For all their dominance, Everton did not test Arsenal goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny with a shot on target in the entirety of the first half. But Wenger's home team similarly struggled for a shot and did not muster an effort until the 43rd minute. That did spark a strong finish to the half from Arsenal and Tim Howard was forced to make a handful of saves to mean the Everton goalkeeper went in at the break having touched the ball eight more times than Szczesny.
Arsenal also began strongly immediately after half-time but they never took control of midfield and the game evened out. Again, McCarthy was vital in maintaining that foothold for Everton. He was the responsible player who sat in midfield despite being the less experienced member of Everton's central pairing. Barry was given more permission from Martinez to get forward. This was demonstrated by the fact the Manchester City loanee played more passes in the opposition half (51) compared to McCarthy (27) but this is still unusual. It is difficult to imagine many players of McCarthy's age being trusted as the player to fight the urge to break forward while he also has younger legs than Barry.
That Martinez is prepared to put his faith McCarthy says it all about his increasing maturity. It is something to which Republic of Ireland coach Roy Keane alluded in November's international break, when he said having watched McCarthy: "He is certainly progressing very, very well and certainly when he steps up a level, I have seen him against the very good teams and he has stepped up, which is a very, very good sign. My first impression is that the boy has a chance of being a top player."
With McCarthy and Barry dominating central areas, Wenger tellingly made a triple substitution and his changes were all in midfield, with Aaron Ramsey, Santi Cazorla and Wilshere the men to go off. The last time Wenger had made a triple substitute was against Martinez and McCarthy's Wigan in December 2011 - albeit when Arsenal were already 4-0 up and cruising to victory.
The introduction of Walcott, especially, helped Arsenal in adding some pace in wide areas and it was his header across goal which led to Ozil's goal. But still McCarthy helped Everton maintain control in central midfield and ultimately equalise through much-praised substitute Deulofeu. McCarthy lost possession only nine times during the game, which was less than any other Everton player apart from centre-back pair Phil Jagielka and Sylvain Distin, who of course had the luxury of more time on the ball compared to the congested midfield.
Following on from a similarly impressive performance in the win over United, McCarthy finished the game against Arsenal having won only one of his four duels. But it was in his simple yet smart use of the ball that Everton were able to build for a draw which was the least their performance merited. He ended the game with an 88.2% success rate in his passing which was more than any other midfielder on the field who had produced more than 50 passes. It was a mature, composed and subtly influential performance. In McCarthy, Everton have a midfielder of class and dependability for the present and future.
"It was a very intense game and you have to say Everton were a very good side today. They gave us a difficult time, especially at the start of the game in the first half-an-hour. After that we had better control in the final 15 minutes of the first half and the second half but they remained always dangerous on counter-attacks."
"The performance - I could not be happier. The only bit of criticism is you need to take your chances, in the final third we were not ruthless enough. But I am really, really pleased. The character is really strong. We conceded really late from an unlikely source but we did not accept defeat."
Paul Merson's view
"I thought this would be a hard game and Arsenal did not play well today but Everton did not let them play. They never played well and they never lost. They have played badly a couple of times this season, once against Aston Villa and once at Old Trafford and they lost both games, that is the positive."