Sunday 25 June 2017

Gunners out of harmony

Arsenal 2
Everton 2

Jeremy Wilson

Pienaar cashes in for revitalised Everton as Song absence has Arsenal hitting all the wrong notes

The weather could not prevent this match from going ahead, but Arsenal's momentum in the Premier League title race was certainly frozen amid the sub-zero temperatures.

More worryingly for Arsene Wenger, having seen his team take several matches to realign and recover from the loss of Robin van Persie, the early evidence is that the departure of Alex Song to the African Cup of Nations could be equally damaging.

Without Song shielding the back four, they struggled to regain possession and, at times, found themselves overrun and unable to string quick passes together. Denilson might be a promisingly versatile player but he lacks Song's presence and authority.

The wider problem for Arsenal is that Song and Van Persie were the two players whose raison d'etre was to selflessly make Wenger's new fluid 4-2-3-1 system work.

Andrei Arshavin has done an admirable short-term job of covering for Van Persie and Bendtner but there will be problems over the next month if the cracks spread to midfield.

Wenger pinpointed the lack of speed in Arsenal's passing and, while he was reluctant to make sweeping judgments, it was solemnly acknowledged that Song -- arguably his player of the season so far -- had been missed.

"I knew that before he left, unfortunately," Wenger said. "I don't want to draw a quick conclusion because too many players were off the pace. We struggled for a while when we lost Van Persie as well, so we have to find a new balance, new responsibilities and a share of responsibilities in our game."

As well as the potential solutions from within, Wenger is considering his transfer window options. "We are open to it and in every position," he said. "It's a bit like being a fisherman -- you try here, you try there. You have listed in your head priorities one, two, three, four, and you always try to get number one."

Arsenal were ultimately thankful for a 2-2 draw but credit to David Moyes for Everton's resurgence during this most injury-ravaged of seasons.

Despite becoming only the second team to avoid defeat at the Emirates this season, there was only frustration at the outcome. Everton certainly appear to have turned the corner with a six-game unbeaten run.

The snow tracks were instructive. Everton's technical area was a mess of scuffled anxiety and Arsenal's was full of serene patterns. Wenger did not quite lie down and make a snow angel but it was clear, after they had left the field, which management team had brought most energy to the match.

It would be tempting to conclude that Everton were a team simply better suited to chasing around in a blizzard, that Arsenal's elegant style was always going to suffer in the freezing conditions and poor visibility.

Leon Osman even went so far as to say it was fun, running around with snowflakes battering his face. And it was, in part, true that Moyes' team looked as comfortable as their bold supporters -- they did not seem to have noticed the weather.

But Everton were superior in many other respects. Their tactics were spot-on for a start. They noted who was missing for Arsenal and aimed to capitalise. Surely an Arsenal side without Cesc Fabregas and Song would be vulnerable.

"The plan was to be aggressive in midfield, not give them time, because we know if you give Arsenal two metres, they will play you off the field. That was the plan, we stuck to it and it paid off," said Steven Pienaar.

It was all fairly simple for Moyes. "At the end of the day you try and win a football match, no matter who you play," the manager said.

And from the first whistle his team had victory rather then damage limitation in mind. There was the added incentive of wiping out the memory of the 6-1 defeat by Arsenal at Goodison Park on the opening day of the season.

"That was in our heads," admitted Pienaar. "We'd been talking about it all week. We had a point to prove because the way we played on the first day of the season was just a disgrace to the people, the supporters, our families, and the guys wanted to make things right."

Everton created all the early pressure and deservedly took the lead when Landon Donovan, who made an encouraging debut after his loan move from the Los Angeles Galaxy, floated a corner into the Arsenal penalty area where Leon Osman easily outjumped William Gallas to head beyond Manuel Almunia.

The goal briefly galvanised Arsenal but there was good fortune about their equaliser. Denilson had shown considerable persistence in regaining possession and, after a swift exchange of passes between Arshavin and Eduardo, the Brazilian's shot was deflected off Osman's ankle and beyond Tim Howard.

Everton, though, kept Arsenal on the back foot and took the lead for the second time with a goal of real quality. Tim Cahill had produced a wonderful moment of skill and then a defence-splitting pass, but there was still plenty to do for Pienaar, who deftly chipped the ball over Almunia with the minimum of effort and maximum of style.

"An unbelievable finish, especially on that pitch with snow on it," Moyes said. "My heart was in my mouth. If the goalie had stood up and knocked it away with his hand I might have run on the pitch and rugby-tackled him. It will take something special to beat it for Goal of the Season. If it was (Thierry) Henry or (Dennis) Bergkamp, everyone would be saying 'what a goal'."

It was a moment that deserved to win any game but, despite their below-par display, Arsenal did show plenty of spirit and were rewarded with another fortuitous equaliser when Tomas Rosicky's shot cannoned off Lucas Neill and over Howard in the 93rd minute.

For Arsenal, the draw felt like a victory. "We are only three points behind Chelsea," said Denilson. "We have more experience this season and we are coming to win this trophy this season."(©Daily Telegraph, London)

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