An engrossing story, albeit one that felt unfinished. The two most accomplished passing teams in the Premier League waited until the last ten minutes to exchange goals and it was indicative of the different worlds they inhabit off the pitch that while the £42.5m man Mesut Ozil scored for Arsenal, it was a 19-year-old on loan from Barcelona who got the equaliser.
Gerard Deulofeu is a marvellous young footballer, although you imagine that the best years of his career will be played out at the Nou Camp rather than the Premier League. At least he will return to Spain at the end of the season able to report that England is not bereft of comparable native talent, not when his team-mate Ross Barkley can be the outstanding player in a game like this, and just two days after his 20th birthday.
The only thing missing from Barkley’s game was a Wayne Rooney-style “Remember the name” moment, as per the goal scored by the latter for Everton against Arsenal in 2002. Barkley was excellent. Deulofeu may have pinched the glory at the end with a 12-minute substitute’s cameo and a critical goal but his English team-mate was the best player on a pitch which featured some of the season’s outstanding performers.
Afterwards, Roberto Martinez was asked about Gary Lineker’s observation that there were shades of Paul Gascoigne about young Barkley. The Everton manager agreed and said that he could see a touch of Michael Ballack in the Liverpudlian too. “Ross is an incredible person: mature and with a real love for the game,” Martinez said. “I have never seen an English player with that mentality.”
Barkley did it all in front of Roy Hodgson, fresh off the plane from Brazil and alongside Ray Lewington in the stands at the Emirates. The player’s manager at Everton says that Barkley requires “50 starts to see his evolution” although at this rate he will be going to the World Cup finals in June whether or not he hits that number for his club.
The goal that Ozil scored with nine minutes remaining never felt like the last act in a very even, high-quality game and so that proved to be the case. Nevertheless, a victory for Arsenal in these circumstances, largely outplayed in the first half, better after the break, would be one of those hard-won three points that, we are solemnly told, every title-winning team must occasionally acquire.
It was not to be, but nevertheless this was a good return on a day when the likes of Aaron Ramsey and Jack Wilshere looked off-key. Olivier Giroud, who was resolute and effective, struck a fabulous 90th minute left-foot half-volley that clipped the corner of Tim Howard’s goal and left the frame vibrating. Otherwise, Arsenal struggled a little to impose themselves on their visitors, which prompted a rare triple substitution on 68 minutes to shake things up.
Arsene Wenger complained, mildly by his standards, about what he saw as Everton’s tactical fouling. The Arsenal manager believes he has identified a new trend whereby teams press high up the pitch and, when breached, foul early and far enough away from their own goal. Gareth Barry clattered Ozil twice, the kind of intervention he would have been well-served making when the German skipped past him on that fateful afternoon in Bloemfontein at the last World Cup.
Nevertheless, life is not bad at all at the Emirates. At this point last season they were tenth with 21 points, one fewer than crisis club du jour, Manchester United currently have. This time around they are five points ahead of second-placed Liverpool. Before Christmas they must play Manchester City and then Chelsea. Whatever concerns there were against Everton, the Per Mertesacker- Laurent Koscielny axis generally performed well.
Martinez said that his team played even better than they had winning at Old Trafford on Wednesday and in the first half it was hard to argue. They showed confidence in possession and then sheer bloody-mindedness when it came to excluding Arsenal from the party. They passed the ball beautifully and, when they lost it, they worked furiously hard to get it back.
Barkley exemplified that desire to go forward, indeed he seems programmed to attack. With Steven Pienaar and Kevin Mirallas either side of him, and Romelu Lukaku the striker, they passed the ball intensively in the first half. It also seemed that Everton consistently worked the ball to Arsenal’s right side, and Carl Jenkinson, where Pienaar and Bryan Oviedo sought to apply pressure.
Yet for all this good work there were very few chances of note for Everton in the first half. Mirallas stroked a cross in front of the Arsenal goal in the fifth minute that required just a touch. When Arsenal finally got their act together in the closing stages of the first half they created two good openings for Giroud and then Ramsey - both of which were blocked by Tim Howard.
Wenger’s team started the second half strongly, although Martinez politely pointed out that he thought they had switched to a more direct approach. Santi Cazorla had a headed from a ball cut back by Wilshere. Ramsey had a shot blocked. Then Everton came back into it. Wilshere left a ball on the edge of his area and Barkley forced a save from Wojciech Szczesny.
The Arsenal goal was a cross from the substitute Tomas Rosicky, knocked down by Theo Walcott which looked like it might be finished by Giroud before he seemed to catch Phil Jagielka. In came Ozil to finish the job. Five minutes later the assured Deulofeu took the ball outside Kieran Gibbs and, in the absence of a challenge, struck a fierce shot past Szczesny. “He’s arrogant,” said Martinez of the 19-year-old, “but in the right way.”
The Everton manager said that his young loanee had been telling him all week that he “going to score the winner” in this game. That was beyond him but it is indicative of the new can-do Everton that they are not about to be patted on the head by the traditional top four sides; not this time anyway.
With Barry and James McCarthy impressive in the centre of midfield and the absence of Leighton Baines only lightly felt, this has been a good start to the season For both clubs, the new post-Sir Alex Ferguson Premier League has been a happy one. Arsenals big examinations come in the next two weeks and if they emerge with their lead of the table intact then they will believe anything is possible.
Arsenal (4-2-3-1): Szczesny 6; Jenkinson 5, Mertesacker 7, Koscielny 7, Gibbs 5; Arteta 6, Ramsey 6 (Rosicky 6, 68), Wilshere 6 (Flamini 6, 68), Ozil 6, Cazorla 6 (Walcott 6, 68); Giroud 7.
Substitutes not used: Vermaelen, Monreal, Fabianski (gk), Bendtner.
Everton (4-2-3-1): Howard 6; Coleman 6, Jagielka 7, Distin 7, Oviedo 6; McCarthy 6, Barry 7; Mirallas 6 (Deulofeu 7, 78), Barkley 8 (Naismith, 90), Pienaar 6 (Osman, 70); Lukaku 6 .
Substitutes not used: Robles (gk), Heitinga, Jelavic, Stones.
Booked: Everton Barry, McCarthy, Howard, Deulofeu
Referee: H Webb (South Yorkshire)
Man of the match: Barkley