For 45 minutes, it went swimmingly. The tactical tweaks so effective in the previous meeting worked like a charm once more to hand Everton a 2-0 lead over Arsenal. Then the second half happened.
Though the 2-2 result and wildly contrasting halves of football echoed the draw at Leicester, this was worse. The stronger first half and surrender of a two-goal advantage made sure of that.
- Three Points: Everton 2-2 Arsenal
It is the first of those points that hurts the most; the strength of the first half gave little indication of what would follow. There was even a set-piece goal to cherish. Much like the opening goal, there was a pleasing inventiveness about the football in the early stages. Even the loss of Steven Pienaar, so influential last weekend, could not disrupt the home side. It was only in the latter stages that Pienaar's absence hurt, ball retention and ability to draw fouls especially.
Nonetheless, led by the excellent James McCarthy, the players executed their manager's script to perfection en route to establishing their early dominance. Once again employed on the right of a front three, Romelu Lukaku showed why he is such a threat against this Arsenal side, exploiting the gaps created by the wandering Nacho Monreal and supplying a deft assist for Steven Naismith.
Tireless as a withdrawn focal point in a front three, Naismith has rotten luck that the role most suited to him is in a formation presently reserved solely for the visit of Arsenal. With Lukaku and Kevin Mirallas in close proximity, Naismith could remain further forward, in the penalty area, where he is at his most effective.
Factor in the seamless return of Seamus Coleman, who capped his comeback with a goal, and it was all picnics and rainbows as the players headed down the tunnel at halftime.
But in a repeat of last week's 2-2 draw, the wheels proceeded to fall off as the match wore on. Everton failed to heed the warning signs, namely an Oliver Giroud crossbar-grazer shortly after the break. The newfangled system that had provided the platform for victory suddenly became a hindrance. Arsenal began to exploit their numerical advantage in midfield, as Everton's lack of possession rendered their front three ineffective, with the home side struggling to stem the stream of red shirts pouring forward.
Whatever the primary reasons behind it, be it a hangover from a disjointed preseason -- certainly a number look short of fitness -- or a series of misjudged substitutions and tactical moves, the manner in which the Blues have faded in the last two matches is alarming.
Giroud gave the visitors a much-needed focal point in attack, but it was not reason enough to explain how easily Roberto Martinez's men relinquished the control evident earlier on. Those in royal blue merely retreated. Panic replaced composure, and Arsenal sensed it, going for the jugular, especially down their left side.
So effective at attacking substitutions, excelling when his team are chasing the game and in need of a lift, these two draws appear to have unearthed a flaw in the Martinez armoury. Changes geared toward shutting up the proverbial shop are not as forthcoming.
As Coleman faced ever-increasing numbers ahead of him, McCarthy found himself trying to play two positions, attempting to hold down central midfield while helping Coleman as a makeshift right-side midfielder. Unsurprisingly, it was a battle that the easily outmatched duo lost. The like-for-like introduction of Christian Atsu for Lukaku, allowing the retention of a front three, proved too bold a move. For once, the practical option was to shore things up, not fight fire with fire.
With Coleman and McCarthy in a losing battle, it was predictable to see both Arsenal goals originate on that flank. Similar to set pieces, crosses are becoming just as troublesome of late. As good as Phil Jagielka and Sylvain Distin are individually, there is a tendency for one or both to have a momentary lapse. Both suffered for the Arsenal second in this regard; Jagielka missed his header, and Distin ended up on the wrong side of Giroud.
As attention turns to Chelsea next weekend, Everton and Martinez have to prevent this indifferent start progressing further. Forced back too easily in successive games, the confidence of the manager and his players looks to have taken a hit. Both must rediscover their assertiveness, and quickly, to ensure Everton go the distance in matches.