If marks were awarded for artistic merit in football it is Arsenal who would be prompting phone-in debates about an uncompetitive Premiership with this victory having earned a sackful of points. Instead, it brought only three which merely lifted them to seventh, still well behind Chelsea but at least ahead of Tottenham.
Unusually, Sol Campbell was the match-winner, staking his claim for an England recall by adorning a solid performance at the back with a brace of headed first-half goals. The crossbar, and Nigel Martyn, denied Arsenal further goals but there was no disguising the gulf.
"It's great to be back last season was one of frustration," said Campbell. "He started as a centre-forward as a young player. Sometimes he reminds us," said Arsène Wenger. The Arsenal manager admitted, in the wake of Thierry Henry's injury and Patrick Vieira's departure, he had rushed Campbell back. "We are normally good in those situations but they were two towering headers," said Everton's David Moyes.
Victory was important for Arsenal. Though the campaign is barely a month old the pre-match mood of both teams was already such that the man with the loud hailer in Gillespie Road, warning people to "repent for the end is nigh" might have anticipated a decent audience.
For Everton, in particular, the sunny optimism of pre-season seems as distant as standing terraces and the half-time scoreboard. Seven defeats in eight matches has left their European adventure in tatters and their domestic position parlous.
Arsenal are somewhat better off, but they remain nine points behind Chelsea with Henry on the sick list for another month. In the circumstances, Everton's visit offered the perfect tonic. Last season Everton conceded 14 goals to Arsenal in three matches, half of them here in May, allegedly in the wake of celebrating Champions' League qualification in a style Freddie Flintoff would have enjoyed.
Last night's optimistic start was thus an achievement in itself. James McFadden slalomed through a series of challenges and Marcus Bent shot wide. But on a slick pitch Arsenal unleashed their full balletic majesty with Jose Antonio Reyes, Robert Pires and Ashley Cole whipping angled passes across the turf.
Which made it ironic that the goals came from set-pieces. Ten minutes in, Reyes sent over a free-kick from 30 yards out and, with Nigel Martyn going walkabout, Campbell rose to head in. Twenty minutes later, with Martyn rooted to his line, the stand-in captain again met a Reyes dead-ball in a manner John Radford would have appreciated.
By then Phil Neville had clumped Pires, putting him out of the game, but Alexander Hleb knitted perfectly into the role. Chelsea may be clear at the top, but this was football as art with even Kolo Touré stepping out of defence, exchanging passes with Freddie Ljungberg, then turning the Swede's cross just past the post.
Against this redcurrant tide Everton settled for damage limitation, leaving Bent to forage alone. Behind him, the bookings mounted up: Tim Cahill, Neville and Tony Hibbert being cautioned before the hour. In response, Reyes, wearying of the usual assault, tattooed his studs on Neville's shins, thus gaining a caution and a measure of revenge for past batterings by the brothers. In between, Martyn caught a curling effort from Reyes, Robin van Persie stung Martyn's hands and Ljungberg crashed a volley against the bar.
With the points safe Arsenal eased up but still played with an enviable grace; enviable even at Stamford Bridge?
Arsenal (4-4-2): Lehmann; Lauren, Campbell, Touré, Cole; Ljungberg, Gilberto, Fabregas, Pires (Hleb, 29); Van Persie (Bergkamp, 67), Reyes (Song, 86). Substitutes not used: Senderos, Almunia (gk).
Everton (4-5-1): Martyn; Hibbert, Yobo, Weir, Ferrari; Osman, Cahill (Ferguson, 67), Neville, Arteta (Davies, 85), McFadden; Bent (Kilbane, 81). Substitutes not used: Valente, Wright (gk).
Referee: A Wiley (Burntwood).Reuse content