Everton vs. Arsenal: Gunners close gap on Spurs to 3 points with 2-0 win

Welbeck and Iwobi stepped up on Saturday to help the Gunners beat Everton 2-0 for their first victory in the Premier League since the 2-1 win over Leicester in mid-February. The fans still have a shot at St Totteringham’s Day as Arsenal closed the gap on second-place Spurs to three points with eight games left this season.

Everton vs. Arsenal

Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com

Fitness was a big concern before kickoff since the Gunners only had two days of rest after an exhausting trip to Barcelona on Wednesday. Wenger made just one change to the side that lost 3-1 to the Champions League holders with Coquelin replacing an injured Flamini in the starting lineup. Arsenal made the difference in the first half before sitting back in the second half to let Everton enjoy more ball possession.

Giroud and Sanchez turned Arsenal into a contender by scoring a lot of goals in the first half of the season. However, the club’s drop to third place in the standings has coincided with the two forwards’ dip in form since January. Welbeck removed the burden off their shoulders by quickly opening the scoring against Everton. Sanchez combined with Ozil in the seventh minute to slip a through ball to Welbeck, who rounded Robles to slot into an empty net.

Welbeck worked hard up front, charging down a clearance from Besic in the second minute which bounced off the England international before hitting the post. That would have been a really weird goal for Welbeck, who also intercepted a back pass from Stones for Robles in the 51st but was bullied by the Everton centerback and lost possession. If Welbeck had returned from injury by December, you kind of wonder whether he could have netted a few goals during the club’s poor run of form.

A bit of Bergkamp, a bit of Anelka

Wenger was so impressed by Iwobi’s performance against Barcelona that the Nigerian teenager is now ahead of Campbell and Walcott in the pecking order. Iwobi celebrated his first start in a Premier League game by scoring his first goal for the club in the 42nd. He chased a long ball from Bellerin and held off Besic to slip the ball through Robles’ legs.

Of course, Iwobi is not the finished product yet. He should have tested the goalkeeper with two other chances. Iwobi took a pass from Sanchez in the eighth minute to hit a tame curling shot straight at Robles. Then on the stroke of halftime, he combined with Welbeck to miss the target from a good position. Iwobi is still adjusting to the physicality of the Premier League as he was dispossessed four times and won only 35.7% of his duels. But the potential is there.

Iwobi has definitely been the bright spot in a frustrating season, making the leap from the academy to the first team like Bellerin did it a year ago. What is more amazing with Iwobi is that he didn’t need any loan spell to speed up his development whereas Bellerin played a few months for Watford before contending for a starting spot at Arsenal.

You have to give the manager some credit for trusting his gut instinct and giving Iwobi the nod over more established players. When he plays in midfield, Iwobi reminds me of Bergkamp. Iwobi is not a pure playmaker like Ozil, he’s more like a nine-and-half who can deliver the final ball and be a goal threat at the same time. And when he plays as a forward, Iwobi reminds me of Anelka in his style of play with his pace, penetration and dribbling skills.

Selfless Sanchez

I guess the main reason why Iwobi started against Everton is that he’s more involved in the team’s passing game than Walcott or Campbell. He takes some pressure off Ozil’s shoulders by adding the bit of creativity that has been missing in midfield since Cazorla’s injury. Iwobi set up Ozil for a shot that was deflected out in the 21st and fed Welbeck in the 44th for a promising situation that was killed by a last-ditch challenge from Mori. With more technical accuracy, Iwobi could have added two key passes to his stats but he played the ball behind Ozil in the 58th and Sanchez in the 85th.

Sanchez has been struggling to find the net since his return from injury. Wenger started him on the right wing in an effort to make him less predictable and also to bring back some fluidity in the team’s passing game. The selfless Chile striker won 2 of 3 tackles and made 3 shot assists, the most for any player. He should have been awarded a penalty in the 34th when Besic clipped his ankle inside the box, but the referee ignored the foul.

Clattenburg also missed two other big calls. Giroud, who replaced Welbeck in the 75th, was about to take a pass from Sanchez in the 81st but was tripped by Mori on the edge of the Everton box. Neither the referee nor the linesmen spotted the cynical foul. Two minutes later, Giroud headed in a corner from Sanchez, but Clattenburg disallowed the goal because Jagielka sold a foul by diving in front of the France striker. Giroud helped the Gunners protect their lead by winning 2 of 2 tackles. I thought he should have done better in stoppage time. Chambers set up Giroud, who fired wide from 12 yards.

Shaky Paulista

The Gunners earned their first clean sheet in the league since a 2-0 win over Bournemouth on Feb. 7. They produced a decent defensive performance but it could have been a different story if Everton had opened the scoring in the second minute when Coleman diverted a corner onto the woodwork. Our poor defending on set pieces was exposed as Coleman beat Welbeck to the ball while Monreal strayed from the near post.

The Arsenal defense switched off when the Toffees quickly took a free kick in the 65th. However, Ospina was alert enough to intercept Coleman’s cross for Lukaku. Four minutes later, the Colombia goalkeeper was lucky to see Jagielka head a corner over the bar from five yards. Jagielka got ahead of Koscielny on that play. In the closing minutes, Lukaku outjumped Koscielny for a bouncing header straight at Ospina. The only tough save came in the 23rd, when a curling shot from Besic led Ospina to spill the ball.

Koscielny lost two key duels but Paulista was the most shaky of the two centerbacks. Everton tried to bypass the midfield by playing long balls behind Paulista. The Brazilian centerback failed to attack a long ball in the third minute, allowing Lukaku to make a cross for Barkley that Koscielny headed away. Paulista showed again poor decision-making in the 10th as he played Lukaku onside but the Belgium striker was wrongly flagged offside while collecting a long ball from Baines down our right flank. He also sliced a clearance over the bar in the 27th before settling in the second half.

Setting the tone for the run-in

Paulista and Koscielny combined to make 19 clearances. They learned their lesson from the Barcelona game by not trying to be too cute. Coquelin and Elneny provided enough protection to the back four with their outstanding field coverage. Coquelin made 12 interceptions and won 72.7% of his duels, the best stats among the midfielders according to the club’s website.

The international break is coming at the right time. There was no midfielder on the Arsenal bench at Goodison Park since Flamini, Wilshere, Ramsey, Cazorla, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Rosicky are all injured. Hopefully, one of them will be fit when the league resumes with a home game against Watford on April 2. That will be a crucial match for the run-in.

The Gunners have seemed more comfortable lately on the road than at the Emirates stadium. Is it a mental block? Is the atmosphere too toxic? The way they perform against Watford could set the tone for the end of the season as they have five home games left and just three trips.