Arsenal 1-1 Everton: Heavyweight Contenders Clash

I apologize for the lateness of the report - last Sunday was one of the rare times that I did not have a match of my own on the day (floodlight failure the cause - insert Malaysian betting syndicate jokes here), so I decided to hang out and imbibe past the point of lucidity. Hey, it happens.

Moving away from The Adventures of 35 and Should Know Better, I won't go over the match itself too much because you've probably read all about it by now. I did want to share some thoughts I had on the contest and the games ahead, though.

Opinion seems to be about 60-40 between "Hey, that wasn't bad, that's the best team we've played all season" and "Those are the kinds of matches title-winning sides have to win". I do think there is a grain of truth to the latter, but you can mark me down as firmly in the camp of the former. A tip of the cap is in order for Roberto Martinez, though. He had Everton fully prepared and ready to play, as evidenced by a first half that they largely dominated.

As I told my roommate later that day, it's like Everton and Manchester United have switched places - mentally, I treated this season's United loss as if we had gotten unlucky against a small team and dropped points that we shouldn't have. Meanwhile, I came into this one a bit more nervous than usual, in the knowledge that they have quietly put together a squad of talent, strength and fortitude.

I've now seen Romelu Lukaku play for Belgium in person, and come away with much more appreciation at just how great Laurent Koscielny is to have kept him in his pocket for almost the whole 90 minutes. His partner Per Mertesacker was excellent as well, but the Frenchman stood out with several timely interceptions and one brilliant sliding tackle that I remember. I think a word also must be spared for Carl Jenkinson, who acquitted himself well on the right and put in a few well-placed crosses, and also the excellent hold-up play of Olivier Giroud. Once Everton punched themselves out a bit after the half-hour mark, the HFB did an excellent job of bringing his teammates into the play and relieving the pressure some.

Our problem though was that the Toffees dominated the center of the park. Ross Barkley (who I bigged up in these virtual pages last season, as you may recall) is a special talent and showed it again - his runs, his usage of space, his precise passing - he's got it all. Contrast that our situation, where Aaron Ramsey and Jack Wilshere looked exhausted and hardly put a foot right the whole time they were out there. Bad passes and bad decisions abounded, but they were bailed out by the excellence of our defenders time and again. Mikel Arteta also worked hard and broke up several attacks in the nick of time.

We also missed some creativity from Mesut Ozil and Santi Cazorla. I believe the German is still finding his footing and acclimatizing to the pace of this league, but I'm a little concerned about Santi's form. He has definitely not turned into an average player overnight, but he is looking knackered and perhaps a bit jaded on top. Whisper it, but I don't think a game or two on the bench would go amiss in his case...both for the rest and for the reminder that nobody's place in the XI is set in stone. What I love about this season's team is it is a true meritocracy - just ask poor old Thomas Vermaelen.

I will say though that this was a match that was SCREAMING out for Mathieu Flamini to start. Perhaps he was being rested for bigger challenges ahead (the fact that there are better sides than Everton looming is a scary one, but true), but we could have done with his energy and bite in the middle of the park. He was OK when he came on, but I don't know if he was as into the rhythm of the game as he would have been if he were on from the beginning - it's telling that he could have prevented their goal if he had tactically fouled Barkley early on in the build-up. He'd normally do that without a second thought, but he failed to on this occasion.

That said, when Flam came on, it was part of a three-man substitution. I have had a go at Arsene many times in this space for how he handles this responsibility, but we all agreed with the changes on this occasion. The three men who came off (Wilshere, Ramsey and Cazorla) were by far our most ineffective players, and the ones who came on (Flamini, Tomas Rosicky and Theo Walcott) were exactly what was needed. It is no coincidence that we scored scant minutes after they came on, Ozil firing home into the top corner after a goalmouth scramble.

Normally, you'd expect us to hold on when we need to defend for just ten minutes. But, the visitors were able to bring on yet another special talent in Gerard Deulofeu, who needed only five to make his mark. I've seen one or two people blame Wojciech Szczesny for the goal, but they honestly need to go sit in the corner with the dunce cap on. Kieran Gibbs had something of a shocker all game (it's Monday morning quarterbacking, but there is an argument that Nacho Monreal should have replaced him instead of Rosicky coming on), and for me was not tight enough to the Spaniard when he got his shot away. Still, let's not take away from the brilliance of the goal - he had little time and almost no space, and he managed to place his shot in the one place where Szczesny had no chance. Again, you can only tip your cap, really.

So, we miss out on a chance to put serious distance between ourselves and the rest of the pack, but I don't think it's that big of a deal. There is no team in this league that is much beyond us in skill or talent, and I'd argue that so far no one has displayed anything like our togetherness and fighting spirit. Napoli also has problems of their own, such as defending, defending and also defending. We'll be fine. This was a cracking match played between two fantastic footballing sides, and ultimately it was played out to a fair result (which we may have even nicked if Tim Howard hadn't had an outstanding outing). I look forward to our visit to their gaff, that's for sure.

The Modern Gooner Player Ratings:

Szczesny 8, Gibbs 5, Mertesacker 8, Koscielny 9, Jenkinson 7, Arteta 7, Wilshere 5 (Flamini 7), Cazorla 6 (Rosicky 7), Ramsey 6 (Walcott 7), Ozil 7, Giroud 7

Man of the Match:  Barkley has a serious argument, as do both goalkeepers. However, given how much trouble players like Lukaku have given us in the past, I have to give this to Laurent Koscielny for the defensive masterclass in silencing a beast of a center-forward.