Ex-Gunner Theo Walcott gives Everton hope to end long winless run at Arsenal
When Everton travel to Arsenal on Saturday, the teams might wish to compare notes as both meander their way through disappointing domestic campaigns ahead of a potentially pivotal summer and ongoing doubts over their respective managers.
Neither team has lived up to expectation and current form reflects the lack of consistency. Everton beat Leicester 2-1 in midweek but had won none of their seven previous games; Arsenal lost 3-1 at Swansea and have won only one of their last five league games.
With Everton isolated in ninth and Arsenal now adrift in sixth, both teams are at least a couple of places below where they might expect to be. Both teams also ranked among the busier in the January transfer window, including the transfer of Theo Walcott between the two clubs for around £20 million, the 28-year-old swapping red for blue in search of regular football after not starting a league game for Arsenal this season.
Without a league start since April, Walcott had reached the end of his time at Arsenal. While no doubt keeping found memories of his 12 years in North London, Walcott might believe he has something to prove to his old team after a reduced role for much of his final year at the club.
That hunger, and the chance to play regular first-team football again, perhaps accounts for the rapid start Walcott has made on Merseyside. In only 180 minutes, with two goals and an assist, Walcott has already directly contributed to three goals, which is 11 percent of Everton's league tally for the entire season. His 14-minute midweek double against Leicester made Walcott only the eighth Everton player to score in the league this term.
The two close-range strikes seemed simple enough, though partly because Walcott made both look effortless. The ease of both finishes showed the touch of class in the final third that has been absent in this Everton team for much of the season. It was a reminder of the finishing ability that helped him score more than 100 goals for Arsenal.
To add further context to this fast start, Walcott now stands fifth in goals and joint fourth in assists among Everton players after just two matches. His average of three shots per game is a team-high. All three of the shots on target against Leicester were from Walcott.
Even at this early stage, his all-round performances are just as impressive as the attack-minded aspects, displaying a rarely mentioned work rate and willingness to contribute to the defensive effort. After countless attempts in recent years to identify a player comfortable out wide and capable of mixing craft and graft, Everton might finally have struck lucky.
With his pace and finishing ability, Walcott is the best bet if Everton are to stand a chance of ending their miserable record in this fixture and in matches against Arsenal in general. Arsenal have scored 100 Premier League goals against Everton. No other Premier League team has ever scored as many goals against another Premier League team.
Since Graham Stuart and Andrei Kanchelskis scored in a 2-1 win in January 1996, the winless Everton run at Highbury and the Emirates stands at 23 matches in all competitions. Four successive Emirates defeats, with 11 goals conceded, offers a snapshot of recent meetings and highlights the challenge facing manager Sam Allardyce and his players this weekend.
Allardyce also must weigh up whether right-back Seamus Coleman can cope with two matches in the space of four days after returning from his double leg break and 10 months out of action. A debut for centre-back Eliaquim Mangala seems unlikely but remains plausible due to Allardyce's frustrating knack for rotating centre-backs on a weekly basis.
Allardyce requires a plan capable of securing a rare Everton win in this fixture and nullifying Arsenal's home form that is second only to Manchester City. Arsene Wenger's team has scored two or more goals in 10 of their 12 home games this season.
But there is some hope for the visitors. Though the Swansea defeat came away from the Emirates, the blueprint to defeat Arsenal should remain the same for Everton in this match. Only Watford have dropped more points than Arsenal from winning positions this season.
Preferably without conceding first, as Swansea did, Everton need to try to capitalise on that potential vulnerability. Everton performed best against Leicester when pressing the ball and forcing mistakes. Arsenal might not possess the same quality or fear factor as years gone by, but there is more than enough quality available to pick a still makeshift Everton defence apart if the away side merely turn up in damage-limitation mode.
Everton can be bold without being reckless, and the best hope of ending this 22-year run of misery is a positive approach, with Walcott at the forefront of it against his former club.
Luke is ESPN FC's Everton blogger. Follow Luke on Twitter @lukeofarrell.