A few ‘firsts’ from yesterday’s game that were worth picking up on I thought. First of the ‘firsts’ – a clean sheet! How about that eh? Turns out we do know how to do those, even with our most impressive defender of the season – Sokratis – picking up an injury early on and being replaced by Holding.
I’ll admit that at the point at which Sokratis came off I had very little expectation that our goal wouldn’t be breached at some stage during the afternoon. Mustafi had picked up a couple of knocks, Bellerin looked like he was petrified every time the ball went to Richarlison, whilst on the other flank Theo was getting in behind Monreal with what felt like consummate ease. Rob Holding is a young player and inevitably has a mistake in him and so the signs didn’t exactly feel overwhelmingly positive.
Thankfully we had the experience and performance of Cech to come to our beleaguered back lines first half performance. He saved from Walcott twice, he tipped a Richarlison goal over, made a good free kick save from Digne and over the 90 was easily our best player.
Perhaps that’s something to be slightly concerned with but I guess United finished second last season with their ‘keeper man-of-the-match every week so it’s nothing to be ashamed of. It also shows that Emery made the right decision in not hooking Cech permanently by playing Leno. There were some calling for it but as I was discussing with somebody in the ground during the game, you can’t drop Cech now because it sets your stall out and if Leno doesn’t work or makes a few mistakes you’re in a situation where you’ve admitted there are problems in the ‘keeping department and you’ve got to bring back the Czech stopper after you’ve binned him so early in the season.
He didn’t, he stuck to his guns, so Cech provided him with a display that rewarded that loyalty from the manager.
It was a good job that he did though because in that first half it felt like one of those games where Everton had our number. Marco Silva is no mug and he knew that with our aims of pressing, but also with the weakness of our full backs, Everton could break on us quickly and they did that a few times in the first half.
Conversely, in that first half our attack just didn’t really click, with Özil and Ramsey barely getting a kick and Lacazette looking isolated and a little forlorn at times. We just couldn’t string passes together for more than five or six moves and when we did look for a split second like we could break through Everton, we’d often find players checking back and playing square passes. I counted a couple of times where Cech played the ball out with urgency yet we had players controlling the ball, checked back and playing sideways in field to the easy pass. Players were taking the easy option and there wasn’t that one person who wanted to try something overly risky in that first half. We’ve been like it all season and it does feel right now that we need to feel our way in to games in every first half.
It was a laboured first half and far from convincing and after the break it got better, but only after we scored our first goal, because I thought Everton started the first ten minutes of the second half well. The only difference was that Richarlison was quieter. That meant that Bellerin had upped his game and we also started to see more of him going forward too. He could focus more on getting forward and looking for the forward runs and that felt the same for many of our players.
But we saw more of all of the key Arsenal players going forward too. Ramsey was making those lung-busting runs that he hadn’t in the first half. Lacazette was contesting the ball and closing down space. And even Özil started to drift and pick the ball up in pockets. It was Ramsey that fed Lacazette for the first goal and whilst the Frenchman did most of the heavy lifting with a sumptuous strike off the post, it is noticeable that the Welshman was the provider. It was also Ramsey and Özil who were the players higher up the pitch and heavily involved in Aubameyang’s goal just a few minutes later and after yet another battle in which Lacazette won, his ball fed in to Özil was inch perfect and the only confusing bit about the whole move was why Özil squared it to Ramsey when the Welshman was already next to an Everton defender. Thankfully the defender couldn’t get to Ramsey or Auba and thankfully we have a world class finisher in the Gabonese international, as he was able to bag his third goal in a week and give us a decent cushion to go on and win the game.
And we did. There were one or two moments in which Cech made another couple of smart stops but by and large it felt like we controlled the game and saw it out with some decent controlled possession football. And that’s what the big teams do. They recognise when it hasn’t been the most free-flowing of performances, they know when to stick and when to twist and they act on it. In-game management is so important over the course of the season and so whilst the first half performance will have some (including me) a little worried that against less profligate teams we’ll face problems, the fact that we’ve seen a little bit of maturity when 2-0 up is a pleasing sign to me, most definitely.
A word for Rob Holding too methinks. He played well I thought and dealt with any aerial threat, limited any mistakes to a minimum and made me feel by the end as though we hadn’t lost too much when Sokratis went off. It’s exactly the kind of performance we saw when he started and hopefully we can start to see more and more of that as the season goes on. There’s still lots for him to learn but with Koscielny now out, Mavropanos still injured, Chambers on loan and Mustafi erratic, we might be asking a lot for a young centre half to step up to. If he performs like he did yesterday then we have little to worry about and perhaps if he strings a series of good performances together we can start seeing him as a future first teamer every week.
It’s another win, more momentum, a clean sheet and this will be a massive confidence booster to the players. Brentford are a good team and will provide a stern test for the rotated players but we go in to this week with a smile on our faces and suddenly a position in the league which looks more familiar.
Let’s hope the team can continue this run.
Catch you all tomorrow.