Arsenal get title charge on track as Welbeck stars in win at Everton
EVERTON -- Three quick points from Arsenal's 2-0 victory over in the Premier League, as Arsene Wenger's men got back on track in the title race.
Arsenal remain in the title race
Arsenal's title hopes stay alive or, if you prefer, the illusion remains for at least another couple of weeks.
Wenger's side have made a habit out of pulling a result from the bag in their most dire times of need. They certainly did so here, completely outplaying a lifeless Everton in their best performance since the 2-1 vover Manchester City in December. Whether it is enough to reel in Leicester and Tottenham is highly debatable, but if Arsenal are to produce the winning run that has seemed well beyond them, this was the best way to start.
It did not take an active imagination to expect chances and goals between two sides known for their soft centres, but after an early flurry they arrived in one direction only. In the first two minutes, Seamus Coleman jabbed a drilled Tom Cleverley corner against the outside of the post before a Danny Welbeck ricochet at the other end met a similar fate. Ross Barkley and Gabriel had also missed half-chances by the time Arsenal pried Everton open with what has become customary ease.
Welbeck finished coolly in the seventh minute after a 13-pass move culminated in Alexis Sanchez, playing a give-and-go with Mesut Ozil, slipping through. The goal was well-conceived, but the pressure on both ball and runner was, as away teams tend to find at Goodison Park, minimal.
Alex Iwobi, making his first Premier League start, shot straight at Joel Robles from a good position almost immediately afterward, and when Phil Jagielka produced a last-ditch tackle on Ozil, it seemed a matter of time before Arsenal doubled their lead.
They had to wait until the 42nd minute, but Iwobi's first senior goal epitomised their switched-on approach. After winning the ball just outside his own penalty area, he set off down the right flank and received a fine 60-yard pass from Hector Bellerin, who had taken possession. Iwobi's uncle, the iconic Nigeria forward Jay-Jay Okocha, would have been proud of the execution that followed.
A brief spell of home pressure around the 70th minute saw Jagielka, under pressure from Laurent Koscielny, head just over before Cleverley had a fierce drive blocked by the centre-back. But that was about it, and Arsenal saw out their win with an authority that has been absent in recent months.
Ozil's departure from the scene, appearing to hobble off in the 75th minute, may prove cause for concern but there was nothing else to bother Arsenal here.
Welbeck typifies visitors' fight and aggression
Welbeck has his rough edges, but he offered dynamic proof of why he has generally been preferred to Olivier Giroud since his return to fitness. Arsenal have lacked a coherent threat in behind defences, but they also fall short on energy off the ball when Giroud is preferred. Welbeck offered both, leading from the front in a display that was more aggressive and assertive than any of his teammates have put in since the turn of the year.
Starting down the middle but pulling out to the left, Welbeck's diligence in tracking back helped prevent a jittery Everton from building from defence. His flexibility meant they were easily pulled around on the counter, too.
Welbeck was superbly backed up by central midfielders Francis Coquelin and Mohamed Elneny. The deep pairing pushed up high on Everton's central duo, Muhamed Besic and James McCarthy, from the beginning and never allowed them to receive the ball from the back unhindered. Elneny has settled into a promising rhythm, and while he does not have the vision of the injured Aaron Ramsey, his urgency and efficient use of the ball give Arsenal an energy they have lacked.
Perhaps Wenger, in whom too few of his players have inspired long-term trust this season, has struck upon a selection with the bite and incision to mount the strong finish of which he is convinced they are capable of. More of the same from Welbeck might just raise the level of those around him.
Everton flat without Barry
Can there be a more frustrating place to watch top-flight football than Goodison Park? This was Everton's sixth defeat here in their past nine league games, with the fewest redeeming factors. You wonder how a performance like last week's highly focused FA Cup win over Chelsea has become such a glaring break from the norm.
There are few more vibrant venues than Everton's home when the going is good, but the atmosphere became despondent as soon as Welbeck scored. The groans and boos -- and how quickly they set in -- spoke of a deeply dissatisfied public and their team offered scant response. Everton played like a team whose confidence, in home fixtures at least, is shot and looked a yard short of their opponents in both endeavour and execution.
A degree of mitigation could be offered by the absence of Gareth Barry, missing through suspension. The only Premier League midfielder to have covered more ground this season than Barry is Bournemouth's Andrew Surman. Besic has a quicker change of gear, but there was little to suggest the Bosnian is ready to replace him, and it was little surprise when he was substituted at the break.
Elneny and Coquelin got on top of Besic and McCarthy from the beginning and asserted a control they never relinquished.
There was no stabilising influence in the centre for Everton. As passes went astray or just rolled under feet, they looked a team of disparate parts, short of genuine leadership. Romelu Lukaku was isolated throughout and set upon sharply by Arsenal's centre-backs on the rare occasions he received a ball to feet. Barkley was rarely allowed near to him, and it was little surprise when the England playmaker was replaced by Gerard Deulofeu 15 minutes from time.
When Lukaku, getting on the end of a left-wing cross, headed straight at the near-redundant David Ospina two minutes from the end, a few ironic cheers rang around the stands. This was a miserable, rudderless 90 minutes from a side that should have so much going for it.
Nick Ames is a football journalist who writes for ESPN FC, the Guardian, FourFourTwo and the Blizzard, among others. Twitter: @NickAmes82.