Everton rarely do it the easy way but anyway would do here given their current predicament. Having experienced as poor a run of results not seen since the 1990s, parted ways with their director of football and started to resemble a dysfunctional football club, this victory over Arsenal was much needed.
When Demarai Gray took the ball onto his right foot in second-half stoppage-time and unleashed an unstoppable shot which clipped the inside of the goalpost before nestling into the back of the net, Goodison Park experienced a noise that hasn’t greeted this old ground for some time.
An evening that threatened to descend into protest ended in joyous singing, such is the Everton way. In truth, though, Rafael Benitez’s side deserved their first win in nine games. Before scoring the equaliser, Richarlison had two goals cancelled out for the finest of offsides in what felt like an act of punishment on a team severely lacking confidence and luck.
Therefore when Gray’s stunning winner arrived it was celebrated in full force. Arsenal had tried to stop Everton in their tracks by seeking any stoppage available, and although the visitors had their own chances to win the game late on, they had not been efficient enough in the final third to warrant three points.
Martin Odegaard’s cushioned finish in the final knockings of the first half to give Arsenal the lead was their first meaningful attack of the game. Alex Lacazette, the centre-forward, saw most of his possession in the right back position rather than in between the goalposts. A game that could have seen Arsenal leap to within a point of the top four, saw them exposed by a team who possibly wanted the win that bit more.
That’s now two defeats in two, on both occasions they have relinquished an advantage, and three losses in the past four — Saturday’s game against Southampton takes on greater importance for Arteta and his team.
Everton, meanwhile, have a moniker off their back and although this much-celebrated victory resolves all of their problems — far from it —it does relieve some of the mounting pressure on Benitez and his players.
Story of the game
For a half dreadfully missing goalmouth action, the final few minutes provided uncharacteristic drama. It was from a free kick on Everton’s right side that Andros Townsend delivered a left-footed in-swinger on 44 minutes. Richarlison was left unmarked to head past Aaron Ramsdale but as the home supporters celebrated their team taking the lead VAR checked for a possible offside. Indeed, the Brazilian forward’s midriff was slightly beyond the last defender as Townsend sent in his delivery.
If that felt cruel on a club that can’t buy luck currently then what followed was even more punishing. With their first meaningful attack, in first-half stoppage-time, Arsenal took the lead. Kieran Tierney, restored to the starting lineup, strode down the right and dug out a cross which Odegaard did well to get his body over and cushion a volley into the bottom corner.
Such fine finishing was a distinct rarity beforehand. That the standouts were Gray and Thomas Partey both skying efforts over and Anthony Gordon seeing a shot blocked by Benjamin White, said it all. In fact, the most anticipated moment was the 27th minute when a planned walkout protest by Everton supporters was due to take place, but aside from a few hundred who followed through, the majority of the home fans stood and sang ‘Everton’ in support of their club.
That did provide a little atmosphere to what was a turgid half. Yerry Mina, back in Everton’s defence after over two months out with a thigh injury, was forced off with a pulled hamstring. Arsenal, who had Granit Xhaka back despite the midfielder originally due to be out until the new year with a knee ligament injury suffered in late September, grew into the game but lacked conviction with their passing and seemed to dredge down to Everton’s level.
Ben Godfrey was lucky to keep his place on the pitch. Firstly, he went straight through Bukayo Saka in the opening minutes with a thunderous tackle. Then, he trampled and stamped on Takehiro Tomiyasu’s face midway through the first half. Finally, he rode the ball and went over the top of it into Saka’s ankle. That Mike Dean, who has issued more red cards than any other Premier League referee, was the adjudicator only added to the surprising outcome.
Arsenal, despite possessing the lead, failed to make a head of steam, although Gabriel should have done better with a free header at the back post. It looked like the visitors were to be pegged back in the 57th minute only for the offside lines to come to their rescue once again. Doucoure, having weaved his way free of the Arsenal defence, laid off Richarlison and he finished low, but this time his foot was offside by a toenail. Cue more disgruntlement from the home sections.
As Arsenal tried to slow the game and sought every stoppage they could find, Everton kept plugging away. Another heavy tackle, this time Anthony Gordon on Nuno Tavares, could have quite easily been detrimental to their cause, but eventually, the home side managed to furrow effectively. Just inside the Arsenal area substitute Andre Gomes’s effort was charged down, it fell for Gray, whose shot struck the crossbar with Richarlison gobbling up the rebound. A case of third time lucky for the forward.
Arsenal rued missed chances from Gabriel Martinelli,, whose great run through the inside channel ended with a chipped shot onto the top of Jordan Pickford’s goal, and Eddie Nketiah, who came off the bench to head Saka’s cross against the upright.
With play entering stoppage time, it appeared that a draw would be the end result, and creditable on Everton’s part, but when Gomes broke upfield and passed to Gray his sweetly struck shot sent Goodison Park into raptures and Everton to their first victory in a long time.
Everton: Pickford; Coleman, Mina (Holgate 30), Keane, Godfrey; Gordon (Iwobi 87), Doucoure, Allan; Townsend (Gomes 66), Richarlison, Gray.
Subs (not used): Begovic, Kenny, Branthwaite, Delph, Gbamin, Tosun.
Arsenal: Ramsdale; Tomiyasu, White, Gabriel, Tierney (Tavares 65); Partey, Xhaka; Martinelli (Nketiah 71), Odegaard, Saka; Lacazette (Aubameyang 85).
Subs (not used): Okonkwo, Cedric, Holding, Elneny, Pepe, Lokonga.
Referee: Mike Dean.