Fightback saved Arsenal's season, claims Wenger
Arsenal 3 Everton 1
So slight are the margins of error available to Arsenal that, on Saturday 18 October, more than seven months before the Premier League title is presented, Arsène Wenger declared: "We played for our season today."
Although it was uttered with the benefit of hindsight – and three points which, if Wenger's argument is followed, kept his team's campaign alive – it was still some statement.
Would it have been all over, after just eight games, if Leon Osman's first-half goal had not been cancelled out? "All over, no," Wenger said before pretty much saying it would have been. "You give yourself a big mountain to climb if you are seven points behind Chelsea," said the man who, before kick-off had watched much of their humiliation of Middlesbrough on television. "We have to stay as close as we can to the top. We lose here and we are seven points behind. That's too many."
It is going to make for a nervy time even with so much of the race to run and given Arsenal's injuries – Kolo Touré is the latest addition having strained shoulder ligaments which rules him out of tomorrow's Champions League tie away to Fenerbahçe – and what Wenger euphemistically calls a "compact" squad, there are reasons to be fearful.
Striker Robin Van Persie outlined one of them: "The whole squad realise that because we still have to play against the big teams there are lots of big tests for us on the way. We cannot really afford to lose any [matches] – especially at home and also away against some of the so-called smaller teams."
It seems the trauma of that home defeat to Hull City has caused plenty of damage to Arsenal who will look at the league table and realise that the only teams they have played so far who are in the top 10 – apart from the Tigers – are placed ninth and 10th.
"Personality" and "mental strength" are two qualities that Wenger harps on about and his hope is that the experiences of the last campaign, when Arsenal fell short by just four points having had the title under control, will be a benefit. "We deserve a lot of respect but we need to move on and we will be stronger this year," he said.
One player who is certainly stronger is Theo Walcott. As promised, Wenger rested the 19-year-old, who has started nine games for club and four for country already this season – but only for the first-half. He needed Walcott's pace and directness and what is increasingly becoming clear – his talismanic qualities – to overhaul an Everton side who, in that first period, looked the more threatening.
"If you compare with last season, he is exactly the same except he is now scoring," Van Persie said of his team-mate which, in fact, is a pretty significant difference. "There is lots of action from him and he's really quick." Not just quick but, Wenger said, "a turbo", who had "a big impact".
The Everton manager, David Moyes, brushed aside any attempts to get him to eulogise about Walcott. He has problems of his own to deal with and, despite signing a new five-year contract last week, there is an air of uncertainty around Everton, especially concerning the club's ownership. Moyes met that head on, admitting the lack of financial power had been a consideration as he delayed signing. "Yes, it was," he said. "I have to say that. But I do think – how many managers would like to be manager of Everton? I can think of hundreds who would want to do it and I can only think of maybe three or four who would not want to. Not all managers in football have money to spend and maybe my time is coming."
He then laid out a very specific comparison of the kind of owner he would like. "I look at Randy Lerner at Aston Villa and I see someone who has come in and gone about his job nicely and let the manager get on with his business and backed him," Moyes said. "They are getting the benefits from a couple of years of steady building."
Everton have had the benefit of Moyes' building and it was there to be seen again on Saturday in the promise of 17-year-old Jack Rodwell – playing as a holding midfielder but destined for central defence – and a 16-year-old and 18-year-old on the bench. And it was there as they pushed ahead when Osman combined with Yakubu before the former ferried the ball to Steven Pienaar. Osman carried on his run to side-foot home Pienaar's cut-back.
Gaël Clichy cleared Joleon Lescott's header off the line while Van Persie wasted three clear-cut opportunities before a crisp, low shot from Samir Nasri brought Arsenal level. Everton wilted. Pushed back they conceded again as Van Persie headed home from close range and then Walcott completed the scoring with a cool finish. It brought floods of relief.
Goals: Osman (9) 0-1; Nasri (48) 1-1; Van Persie (70) 2-1; Walcott (90) 3-1.
Arsenal (4-4-2): Almunia; Song, Touré (Walcott, h-t), Silvestre, Clichy; Eboué, Denilson, Fabregas, Nasri (Diaby, 83); Van Persie, Adebayor. Substitutes not used: Fabianski (gk), Vela, Ramsey, Gibbs, Hoyte.
Everton (4-1-4-1): Howard; Hibbert (Vaughan, 80), Jagielka, Lescott, Baines; Rodwell; Arteta, Fellaini (Saha, 74), Osman, Pienaar; Yakubu (Neville, 80). Substitutes not used: Nash (gk), Valente, Gosling, Wallace.
Booked: Arsenal Adebayor, Clichy. Everton Lescott, Hibbert, Pienaar, Osman.
Referee: P Walton (Northamptonshire).
Man of the match: Clichy.