With a packed midfield, a goal from a set-piece, and a win against the odds, Everton went back to the future to beat the lacklustre league leaders…
There is something fundamentally retro about Everton, from the white and blue criss-crossed lattice of Goodison Park (which won’t even be there in a couple of years time), one of the great ancestral homes of English football, to the early 1960s stylings of the theme tune to Z-Cars, a television show which hasn’t been made since 1978, blaring out over the PA as the teams take to the pitch. Set against this backdrop, the reason why Sean Dyche might end up as the right fit for this particular club starts to look a little more clear.
None of this is intended as criticism. Traditions are important. The history of our game matters. Everton are woven through the tapestry of that history, one of the 12 founding members of the Football League in 1888 and the second-longest serving member of the top flight of the league. And while Dyche’s style of football certainly isn’t to everybody’s taste, it should be remembered that Burnley were always fighting against the tide in the Premier League in the first place, necessitating a type of football that prioritised substance over style. And for several seasons, it worked.
It is difficult to say, even at the end of this 90 minutes, to say where Dyche’s Everton may be in a few weeks time. The evidence of the issues were clear to see for weeks prior to the dismissal of Frank Lampard. Defensively, they were terrible on set pieces and easy to pick off on the break. Their midfield frequently seemed to be, for all practical purposes, non-existent. Their best player last season, an attacker, had not been adequately replaced, and the man upon whom they were depending for goals was injured as often as not.
The first 45 minutes was such a perfect demonstration of Dyche-ball that you wonder whether a loop of it should be played at the National Football Museum in Manchester. Everton’s hitherto non-existent central midfield was congested, the team holding a tight, compact shape, which they needed to, considering that they only had 28% of the possession.
The press was both high and cohesive. Goals didn’t come, but good chances were created (all from crosses, naturally), with Doucoure missing a sitter and Calvert-Lewin’s leg being an inch too short. Arsenal did finally come into the game more in the last 10 minutes, but Goodison Park felt a little more like its old self within about 10 minutes of the kick-off.
Arsenal started the second half much better, as though some rockets had been administered up some backsides at half-time by Mikel Arteta, but as the clock ticked over the most Sean Dyche goal of all gave Everton the lead, when Dwight McNeill crossed and James Tarkowski out-muscled Martin Odegaard to head in.
This was a stout yeoman of a goal, a move made in Burnley, quite possibly during the industrial revolution. Goodison Park, of course, erupted. Somewhere on Merseyside, someone who’d spent a lot of money getting an anti-board message flown over the ground before kick-off chuckled to themselves at the irony of it all.
Having started the first half with their tails up, Arsenal’s returned back between their legs with the goal. Everton replaced Calvert-Lewin with Maupay, whose movement looked like an immediate upgrade. If anything, Arsenal’s performance was a typical Saturday lunchtime performance; slightly lethargic, as though the players hadn’t really had a proper chance to let their breakfast settle.
Defensively, that a goal came from a corner was no great surprise. They’d been struggling with clearing them all afternoon and continued to do so. In midfield, the incisiveness which has been their hallmark this season was blunted, with passes running astray and increasing desperation as the game progressed into its closing stages.
And they have cause to think twice. This is the point at which their title race gets real. Should Manchester City win at Spurs, that gap will be down to three points, and City have a better goal difference. Confidence is substantially easier to maintain when the wins are flowing, but this is a second defeat in a row for Arsenal.
At City in the FA Cup last week there was justification. The team was reshuffled. The performance was a decent one. Losing in the FA Cup will count for nought if they win the Premier League come the end of the season. But losing a second successive game, and away to a team that kicked off one place off the bottom of the table, is where the challenge for Mikel Arteta really begins.
With the blowing of the final whistle, Everton weren’t in the relegation places any more – well, for a few minutes, at least. This was a very retro performance by Everton, a callback to the days when the stands didn’t have a toxic atmosphere swirling around them, when Goodison Park would come alive with a feeling that they could beat anybody in front of this crowd.
How much of this was the players freed from whatever it was that Lampard was trying to achieve, how much was due to the restorative effects of a shot of Vitamin Dyche, and how much was due to an Arsenal team that put in their weakest performance of the season? The coming weeks will tell us, but the early evidence is that the Everton players have benefited in just a few days from having been arranged into a clear and coherent tactical order.
And this is a club that needed lifting. The last few months have been dismal for Everton, up to the closing moments of the last transfer window. Many of their issues remain unresolved, and unhappiness with the owners and directors of the club will be unlikely to lift much with one win, but those protesting needed that hope that things can get better. Dyche has given them a little of that, with a win that felt like a pressure release over Goodison Park. Back to the future, indeed.
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