Everton and Arsenal show potential
LIVERPOOL, England -- Eighteen years in England have made Arsene Wenger start talking like an old-school British manager. The passing perfectionist, the Arsenal aesthete, the French revolutionary left Goodison Park enthusing about his players' commitment, drive and never-say-die attitude. One word stood out: spirit.
"The spirit got us that point," Wenger said after Arsenal came from two goals down to retrieve a point versus Everton. "We gave a great response with a complete desire to come back, and the spirit was fantastic."
Perhaps fittingly, then, Arsenal's draw came courtesy of the closest thing to a traditional British-style centre-forward, even if Olivier Giroud was signed from Montpellier, not Middlesbrough.
"We needed some physical presence," said Wenger, explaining the half-time introduction of his fellow Frenchman in his news conference. They are the sort of sentiments that George Graham, his more pragmatic predecessor, might have voiced.
And so the most entertaining and unlikely of draws became a triumph of the target man. Giroud was the game-changer, the attacking powerhouse and the anomaly. This was a game of four strikers but with a very modern twist: Only one of them was an out-and-out centre-forward who operated as such.
Everton paid a club record 28 million pounds for Romelu Lukaku, who spent last season on loan at the club from Chelsea. Blues' manager Roberto Martinez has said he has the potential to become the best striker in the world but gave the Belgian his second home debut on the right wing, albeit with the express purpose of targeting and tormenting Nacho Monreal, which, just as in this fixture last season, he duly did.
"It was the way we wanted to play and probably [with] Romelu being left-footed and [with] a profile where he has a lot of space, he is lethal," his manager added.
Meanwhile Steven Naismith started, starred and scored as a false nine. "He is such an intelligent footballer," his manager enthused. "He understands the game down to a tee."
As Everton raced into their lead, Alexis Sanchez, by contrast, was floundering alone in Arsenal's attack. "He knows he is not at his best physically, but when he is, his confidence will come back," Wenger said afterward.
Indeed, this was perhaps his most Wenger-esque selection to date and not merely because he persevered with teenager Calum Chambers at centre-back. He named five attacking midfielders and no specialist striker. Sanchez, his 35 million pound winger, led the line, but only for 45 minutes. By then, Arsenal were two goals adrift.
"The first-half display was as dominant as I have seen at Goodison against a top team," Martinez said. "For 70-75 minutes, it was the perfect performance, very similar to the one we had last time against Arsenal." Indeed, April's 3-0 win against Arsenal provided the context. Martinez adopted the same game plan and, for long periods, seemed likely to ensure the same outcome.
"When we got beaten here 3-0 it could have been many more," Wenger accepted. "Three was quite flattering on the day. For us to come back from 2-0 down against a team as good on the counter-attack, it shows the belief and resilience was there."
So, once he brought Giroud on, it was a fulcrum in the forward line. "We looked much more dangerous," his manager said. "We were not in a counter-attacking situation; we were in a dominating position. We had plenty of chances."
Crucially, one fell to Aaron Ramsey, the Welshman who is specialising in providing late drama. He scored a dramatic winner against Crystal Palace seven days earlier and was then sent off in the closing stages of the midweek 0-0 draw against Besiktas. This time he halved the deficit from close range, extending the definition of a box-to-box midfielder by arriving in the six-yard area.
"He has the engine, and he gambles on getting in the box," Wenger said. "He has the timing to get where you need to be, and he got rewarded."
Giroud struck still later with a goal that was testament to the spirit of a struggler; the otherwise abject Monreal secured redemption by providing the cross.
"We got punished by two goals of hopeful football, and they deserve huge credit for that," added Martinez, criticising and praising Arsenal in the same sentence. He attributed his own side's difficulties in the closing stages to their diminishing energy levels.
"The disappointment is the result, but the performance was phenomenal," he said. But whereas Arsenal score late goals, Everton concede them. If matches were only 85 minutes long, they would be alongside Chelsea and Swansea at the top of the table. Instead, they are yet to win.
"The two games we have played, [against] Leicester and Arsenal, we are the ones to blame for not getting six points," Martinez said. "It is very frustrating but gives you a real excitement going forward. It gives a fantastic potential."
For much of Wenger's Arsenal career, potential has been a watchword. Now it is time to realise it. Are his side, he was asked, title contenders? "It is our ambition."
While they scarcely resembled the best side in the league for much of this match, it was a champion comeback.
Richard Jolly is a football writer for ESPN, The Guardian, The National, The Observer, the Straits Times and the Sunday Express.