In the end it was pretty damn close. But it shouldn’t have. Didn’t need to be. Fresh off the thoroughly impressive win over Bayern Munich during the week, it was always going to be interesting to see how the team would cope with the effects of having to chase the ball all match, both physically and tactically. Especially knowing they would have to adapt their playing style coming up against a team that is usually content to sit break and hit on the break, in the knowledge they have a pool of speedy attackers upfront.
The major change to the team sheet for the match was the introduction of Olivier Giroud in the place of Theo Walcott. That in the end proved to be a masterstroke by Arsene Wenger as the Frenchman eventually proved the difference between the two teams. The first goal, calmly heading the ball past a despairing Tim Howard, reeked of quality. The sort of quality Wenger always swore resided within his countryman, the sort of quality we are only just seeing consistently.
The quality of Giroud’s performance was amplified by how frustrating the opposing team’s lone striker would have been for the away team fans. All throughout the game, Romelu Lukaku was well marshalled by the duo of Laurent Koscielny and Gabriel Paulista. And the one time the Belgian broke free and was about to shoot on goal, the Brazilian was on hand to deny him with a last ditch clearance. the passion in the way Gabriel celebrated that clearance was the best part of the game for me.
Also telling was the difference between the two men at the posts. Petr Cech once again proved the wisdom of his purchase from Chelsea. While at the other end Tim Howard was at his flappable best, at fault for at least Laurent Koscielny’s header. Despite conceding a goal late in the first half off a deflection, the Arsenal backline stood strong throughout, batting away countless Everton attacks.
One common and worn out accusation levied at this Arsenal team, as it has been levied against previous incarnations of the Gunners, is that they lack a backbone, a spine, an ability to grind out a win when they were not exactly firing on all cylinders. That accusation was throughly found out to be false in that match.
Against an Everton team who were still smarting from a loss in the previous match against Manchester United and emboldened and invigorated by the Ross Barkley goal, it was perhaps surprising and delightful to see the Arsenal team stand strong.
And when the manager had to make changes to hang on to the lead, he got them spot on. The returning Matthieu Flamini, came on to put in an impressive shift, with two shots on goal, one of which he really should have scored. Even Keiran Gibbs who came in for the tiring Alexis Sanchez did not disappoint.
A word needs to be said about Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and his performance on the night. The Englishman who was introduced into the starting line up to replace the injured Aaron Ramsey had a very frustrating first half for Arsenal on the right. In the second half he got much better and one could begin to see glimpses of the undoubted talent the young man possesses. With the Welshman out for more than a couple of weeks courtesy of his jammy hammy, this represents a very good opportunity for the Ox to begin to deliver on the trust and faith laid in him by his manager and stake a claim for permanent berth in the Arsenal starting lineup.
With Sheffield Wednesday to come on Tuesday and Swansea City at the weekend, the games are coming quick and fast for the Arsenal. But doesn’t it feel good to be top of the league, at least for now?