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 Granit 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.
This is an extract from Soccer With Jonathan Wilson, a weekly look from the Guardian US at the game in Europe and beyond. Subscribe for free here.