LIVERPOOL, England — It turns out that old habits die hard.
Arsenal would have put themselves resoundingly in the driving seat for a top-four place if they had won at Everton, but instead produced a reminder of every possible reason to doubt them by falling to a 1-0 defeat. This was a listless, lifeless non-performance and it is far from the first time that can be said for their away displays. Their form on the road is a grave problem and, unless it is rectified in the next month, Champions League football will probably remain out of their grasp.
When Phil Jagielka, who had been drafted into Everton’s starting lineup at the last minute due to Michael Keane’s illness, swept home what proved to be the winning goal in the 10th minute, it maintained a damning statistic for the visitors: Arsenal are the only side in this season’s Premier League who are still to keep a clean sheet away from home. Ipswich Town, who are relegation certainties in the Championship, are the only other team in the top four divisions of whom that can be said and it is no basis upon which to build a successful campaign.
It has to change quickly. Arsenal have six league games left, and four of them take place away from Emirates Stadium. Trips to Watford, Wolves, Leicester and Burnley will offer few giveaways, especially with the first three in that list all battling with Everton for the “best of the rest” seventh-placed finish that may well bring Europa League football next term. Their five away wins to date have come against Cardiff, Bournemouth, Newcastle, Fulham and Huddersfield; they are all in the bottom eight and assignments like those should be the least of Arsenal’s worries. It is a continuation of the late Arsene Wenger era’s worst elements, and Emery has so far been unable to correct it.
“I don’t think we lost today and were very bad,” Emery said in his post-match news conference. “It was a bad result and not a good performance, but we are fourth.”
They are, but only on a plus-four goal differential over Chelsea, although if Everton had taken all their opportunities, that buffer might have been wiped out. If Arsenal were stodgy and second best before the break, they were constantly cut apart afterwards and would have been buried by more-clinical opponents. Bernard, Gylfi Sigurdsson and Richarlison were among those to miss presentable chances; there were plenty more openings squandered too and, despite the half-time introductions of Aaron Ramsey and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Arsenal offered next to nothing in response.
“We needed to take chances in the attacking third [in the second half] and defensively we lost,” Emery said. That would have been fine if Arsenal had taken the game to Everton but, aside from a shot wide by Henrikh Mkhitaryan and an opening in the 48th minute that Ramsey lifted over the bar, they showed no threat.
It did not help that, with Granit Xhaka and Lucas Torreira still absent and Ramsey’s fitness being handled with care, Everton’s midfield of Andre Gomes and Idrissa Gueye looked so clearly a cut above. Matteo Guendouzi and Mohamed Elneny both struggled, the latter being hauled off at the interval, and the hosts controlled the centre of the park throughout.
“Everything we did since the first minute, the desire, the fantastic spirit … we deserved the three points,” Marco Silva said. “We were the best team on the pitch.”
Silva’s side have now won three in a row, including a 2-0 victory against Chelsea here last month, and any question marks over his position seem to have disappeared for now. It will have been particularly disappointing for Emery that Everton simply looked sharper and hungrier, a fact for which no list of injury absences can really mitigate. Their wingers, Bernard and Richarlison, offered two examples midway through the second half when they tore back into their own last third to dispossess Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Ramsey respectively within seconds of each other.
Everton’s tempo was relentless and Arsenal never got started. Perhaps Emery might reflect that giving the captaincy to Mesut Ozil, whose only eye-catching contribution was to throw his jacket towards the Everton bench as tempers flared late on, was not the most obvious way of setting a brisk tone.
“After this result we can be negative because it’s three points less, but it’s in our hands to continue to take our chances to be in the top four,” Emery said. He was right, but Arsenal need to discover some element of the resilience that has seen them win their last seven home games in all competitions. They have not always been fluent in those matches — and it is still hard, at times, to work out exactly what the style of this team is — but they have usually tended to find a way.
The best sides do that on their travels, too, but on this evidence Arsenal cannot be placed in that bracket just yet.