Three Points: Everton vs. Arsenal
LIVERPOOL, England -- A trio of thoughts from the Everton-Arsenal 2-2 draw on Saturday.
1. Arsenal's away fortunes change
At first the scenario was eerily familiar. Arsenal traipsed off at halftime facing the steepest of uphill tasks to take a point, let alone three, at the home of one of their peers. A side that started slowly at the Etihad Stadium, Anfield, the Emirates Stadium and Goodison Park last season were two goals adrift at the break. Plus ca change, as Arsene Wenger might say.
What followed was different. Rather than capitulating, Arsenal countered. Thanks to Aaron Ramsey and Olivier Giroud, they extended an unbeaten record that dates back to their last trip to Goodison, a 3-0 defeat in April. Draws secured in such circumstances can feel like victories, and this was evidence of Arsenal's character.
Nevertheless, the comeback should not obscure the reasons it was required, which amounted to an unfortunate continuation of last season for Arsenal. They conceded seven goals in the opening 20 minutes of their four away league games at the rest of the top five last season. They were too naïve, too open and too often out of the game before halftime.
On Saturday, there were early indications that lessons had been belatedly learned. They committed fewer players forward, meaning there was less scope to be caught on the counterattack. And yet, just when it seemed they would reach the 20-minute mark having preserved parity, Mesut Ozil wandered away from Seamus Coleman at the precise moment when Gareth Barry crossed. One individual error extended Arsenal's record of starting poorly in pivotal games on the road.
Then their habit of conceding goals at poor times -- not, of course, that there is a good time to concede -- continued when Steven Naismith scored on the stroke of halftime, though he appeared to be offside when receiving Romelu Lukaku's pass. Just as in April, Arsenal were two goals behind Everton at the break. The difference was that this time, there was a way back.
2. Sanchez struggles but Giroud helps Arsenal graft
From an Arsenal perspective, this was a tale of two strikers. Or, perhaps, two very different players who were deployed as strikers. Since Arsene Wenger committed 35 million pounds to buying Alexis Sanchez, in preference to an out-and-out centre-forward, it has been a question of where the Chilean would play.
He began on the right wing against Manchester City, Crystal Palace and Besiktas, yet it was a matter of when, not if, the former Barcelona man led the line. The answer was provided at Goodison Park, but it was an experiment that lasted 45 minutes and, if there were moments of bright movement from Sanchez in the initial stages, he rather faded as Everton took control.
His halftime withdrawal seemed to suggest that Wenger concluded the ploy had failed. On came Giroud, and the presence of a focal point to the attack reaped an almost immediate dividend: Within a minute, his volley just missed when Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, enjoying the introduction of a target man, picked Giroud out.
Twice more, Giroud came close to halving the deficit, drawing a fine save from Tim Howard, and the Everton back four, who coasted through the first half, were suddenly presented with a rather greater challenge. Arsenal scored once and, when Giroud headed in Nacho Monreal's cross in the 90th minute, they procured an unlikely point.
Yet while his display indicated his omission from the starting XI was a mistake, there were reasons to leave the Frenchman on the bench. His lacklustre performance in Istanbul was a sign that, after a delayed return to preseason training following the World Cup, he is still sluggish. His record is rather better at the Emirates Stadium than elsewhere.
However, when he came on, he offered Arsenal another dimension in attack and they looked a better team with the Frenchman. The chances are that now he will start against Besiktas on Wednesday. Perhaps, in the subsequent reshuffle, an off-the-pace Mesut Ozil could be the man demoted.
3. Everton aim for action replay
Roberto Martinez reprised the game plan that worked so wonderfully against Arsenal in April; this is clearly a blueprint that he thinks enables Everton to profit from the Gunners' shortcomings, and for 82 minutes it worked.
Once again, Lukaku was deployed as a right winger and Naismith as a false nine. Monreal was tormented by the Belgian in their previous meeting so Everton aimed diagonal balls at the supersized striker on the wing. The strategy worked, but with different personnel when the rather shorter Seamus Coleman headed in a Gareth Barry cross to the right; Ozil, rather than Monreal, was the defective defender.
And, just as he had in the last meeting of the two sides, Lukaku provided a goal with a forceful burst infield from the right, only instead of scoring, as he did in April, he set up Naismith to drill in a second. After Martinez pinpointed Arsenal's left flank as a weakness, his players exploited it.
While Everton tend to enjoy the majority of possession in most games, they are content to have less of the ball against Arsenal and break quickly; indeed, that brought the second goal. The pace of Kevin Mirallas and Lukaku gave them outlets on either wing, while the ever selfless Naismith retreated in the centre to help out his midfield.
In effect, Martinez operated with the Scot at the tip of a midfield diamond, with two wingers and no striker. And while Everton were denied their first win of the season, Arsenal should expect to see a similar formation again in the rematch.
Richard Jolly is a football writer for ESPN, The Guardian, The National, The Observer, the Straits Times and the Sunday Express.