Soccer is played always amid half-forgotten memories, at least partially conscious of its past. Arsenal’s recent record at Everton was poor and so what might otherwise have been regarded as a routine win on Sunday takes on a greater significance: they were playing not merely Sean Dyche’s struggling side, but also their own fallibility. In one sense, the fact Arsenal beat a team that has taken a single point says little about their title chances; but in another it was their most promising performance of the season.
Why had Arsenal lost on their three previous visits to Goodison Park? It might just be coincidence; chance has its role in football even if those of us paid to decipher its intricacies prefer not to reflect on that. Last season there was a sense of events conspiring: it was Dyche’s first game as Everton manager, a rare moment of positivity at Goodison, while a second-string Arsenal had gone out of the FA Cup at Manchester City the previous week, disrupting their momentum. More generally, there’s a feeling that Everton is the sort of place Arsenal have struggled since the latter days of Arsène Wenger: a tight ground with noisy fans against physical opponents.
The perception lingers that Arsenal can be intimidated by a barrage of long throws, inswinging corners and loose elbows. After conceding the winner to James Tarkowski’s header from a corner at Goodison last season, it was notable how many teams made an effort to put Aaron Ramsdale under aerial pressure. Tarkowski’s was the first goal Arsenal had conceded from a crossed set-play last season, in their 16th game. By the end of the season, they had leaked a further four.
Eyebrows were raised when Arsenal signed David Raya from Brentford this summer. Peter Schmeichel was among those who spoke out against the idea that goalkeepers can be treated like outfield players. For him there needs to be a clear No 1: to do otherwise is to risk undermining confidence and to jeopardise the relationship between keeper and back four.
Mikel Arteta, though, spoke of Ramsdale and Raya having “different characteristics”, the implication being that certain keepers are more suited to certain opponents. In that regard, it seemed telling that the first game for which Arteta picked Raya was at Goodison where there was a reasonable expectation of a lot of aerial duels. As it turned out, Raya only faced one shot and Everton only won one corner. To say he looked confident and unflustered isn’t really to say very much at all. Raya is two inches shorter than his rival, but over his career he has stopped 8.7% of crosses faced as opposed to 5.9% for Ramsdale. If the selective use of Raya can mitigate an obvious vulnerability, perhaps the risks are worth it.
But the sense of flakiness is not confined to the idea that Arsenal are susceptible to aerial assault. More than most elite sides, they seem prone to mood swings. That was evident in the two games in which the title began to slip away last season: the draws away at Liverpool and West Ham. In both, Arsenal started superbly. In both, they went 2-0 up. And in both, they were knocked off their stride: at Anfield seemingly by a needless spat provoked by Grantit Xhaka barging Trent Alexander-Arnold and at the London Stadium by the concession of a penalty against the run of play. Both they ended up drawing.
Sunday could have gone the same way. Arsenal began well. Everton sat deep, but they weren’t really frustrating Arsenal. They were passive, short of confidence. An Arsenal goal seemed only a matter of time, and appeared to have arrived through Gabriel Martinelli, only for the Brazilian, after a lengthy VAR check, to be deemed offside after it was judged that Beto had propelled the ball towards his own goal in making a challenge rather than volitionally. Worse, Martinelli was forced off with a hamstring problem almost immediately. The rhythm and verve that had characterised Arsenal to that point disappeared.
A quirk of the calendar meant this was Arsenal’s first game outside London this season. All the doubts began to accumulate: they can’t handle a battle, they wilt in the north, they can’t deal with setbacks … and then they came out for the second half and dominated just as surely as they had at the beginning of the first. It took a corner routine – one that relies on delaying and delaying, presumably hoping their opponents’ concentration will waver as fans started to grumble – to produce it, but the goal came.
Arsenal are still not at the level they were last season. They have not been as fluent. The way they allowed Nottingham Forest and Fulham back into games, the fact it took two injury-time goals to beat a Manchester United side they were dominating and the fact it took a very tight offside call in that game to prevent United taking a late lead, are reasons for concern. Manchester City march on implacably, nowhere near their best yet, but with a 100% record that means their rivals exist always under the pressure to be perfect. The two points dropped at home to Fulham may yet prove decisive. But Sunday perhaps offered evidence that there has been improvement in key areas.
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Newcastle United play in the Champions League this week for the first time in two decades. What was special about the final in 2002-03, the last time Newcastle reached the group stage?
a) There was a record attendance
b) It was the first time two Italian clubs reached the final
c) Torrential rain caused the match to be postponed
d) It was the first final held in Slovenia
On this day
Those brought up in the era of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo perhaps can’t quite understand the impact of seeing Brazil’s Ronaldo for the first time. In the 90s, people just didn’t score at a goal a game. Could he really be as good as the rumours suggested? Just how good did you gave to be to be included in Brazil’s World Cup squad at the age of 17? There were clips of him at PSV and, at 19, he was signed by Barcelona. It’s the goal against Compostela that stands out but it felt as though every week there was something similar: Ronaldo charging at a defence, shuffling by some opponents and battering others out the way. He was big, he was strong, he was quick, he was skilful, and he had an appealing habit of sitting goalkeepers down before wandering round them.
He was born on 18 September 1976 and until he was 23 he looked unstoppable. Then, in November 1999, he suffered his first knee injury. He returned five months later and, after just six minutes, suffered a complete rupture of the tendons in his knee. He was never quite the same again; by the time he came back he was merely an excellent centre-forward. He had been incredible.
Elsewhere on the Guardian …
Christian Pulisic perhaps wishes he hadn’t rushed back to Italy from international duty in Minnesota. He was replaced after 56 minutes as his Milan side were stuffed 5-1 by city rivals Internazionale. Yunus Musah came on as a late substitute for Milan as their perfect start to the Serie A season evaporated.
The Juventus midfield timeshare continued as Weston McKennie, the standout in the USMNT’s 4-0 win over Oman on Tuesday, started in a 3-1 home win over Lazio and was replaced by Tim Weah for the second straight club game. McKennie came on for Weah in Juve’s opening two fixtures of the season.
After he came off the bench to score for the USMNT against Uzbekistan and Oman, Ricardo Pepi underlined his supersub credentials again, finding the net with a penalty four minutes after entering the field as a late substitute as PSV Eindhoven beat NEC Nijmegen 4-0 in the Dutch league.
Pepi’s rival for the US central striker position, Folarin Balogun, was even quicker off the mark in France, scoring his first goal for Monaco only three minutes after coming on as a substitute in a 2-2 draw away to Lorient.
What to watch
Pulisic and Milan will seek to bounce back from their derby drubbing when Newcastle visit the San Siro on Tuesday as the Champions League group stage gets underway. With Milan likely to ring the changes, Musah will be hoping for his first club start since his summer move from Valencia. (12.45pm ET, Paramount+, UniMás in the US.)
Barney Ronay marks the 20th anniversary of the dawn of the Roman Empire at Chelsea.
Everton prepare for new owners as a Miami-based investment company aims to complete a takeover of the troubled club.
From a billion-euro buyout clause to Brighton: Sid Lowe wonders if the one-time Barcelona prodigy Ansu Fati can enjoy a renaissance in the Premier League.
It’s b) – the game was the first, and so far only, time that two Italian sides have met in the final. Milan beat Juventus on penalties at Old Trafford, Manchester, after a 0-0 draw.