My God, that international break felt like a long time! Nevertheless, we're back this weekend with a trip to Goodison Park to face Everton, in a fixture that we've really struggled with in recent years. In fact, we've not won there since 2017, in a 5-2 win that saw Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil run riot. Mikel Arteta will be hoping that this weekend sees a much needed change in fortunes.
James Tarkowski was the unlikely hero when the sides met in the Premier League in February, with a towering header at the back post to hand the Toffees a 1-0 win. The game itself was of significance due to the arrival of Sean Dyche as Everton manager, and what followed was as predictable an outcome as you are likely to see. A rough, direct and combative performance from the hosts left Arsenal questioning their title challenge. Despite losing 1-0 to Manchester City in the FA Cup the week before, the Gunners had been flying in the league and were starting to look the real deal, with significant results against both Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur forming the backdrop of the game.
I left the game with two friends reeling about what we had seen. It was a performance that felt alien to what we had become used to in recent weeks but just served to highlight the difficulty that we so often have in this kind of fixture. In my previous trips to Goodison Park, I am yet to see Arsenal come out victorious, but that doesn't mean to say I haven't had some enjoyable experiences visiting the blue half of Merseyside.
Later in that same year, I visited again but this time with my Dad. We came up the night before, had a nice evening in the roughest pub we could find, and then my Dad misjudged the height of a step and fell flat on his face amidst oncoming traffic. We escaped the road and survived the night to enjoy a 0-0 draw the following day, a game famous only for having both clubs new managers watching from the stands as interim managers Freddie Ljungberg and Duncan Ferguson took the reigns for one last time. Arsenal, no doubt, were about to enter a re-defining era for the club.
An then we arrive at possibly my least favourite away trip that I have ever been on. There are various candidates for this particular gong, but I think this one takes the title. I was going through a particularly tough time mentally and had just been to the doctors on the morning of the game. I was in two minds about going to the game, seeing as it was a Monday night and with me living in Margate, the prospect of a six hour journey really didn't appeal. However, following my appointment, I decided to jump in my car and just drive. Six hours later and I'm parked up, on my own, in the middle of Merseyside. Google Maps has advised me to walk through a cemetery to reach the ground as the sun sets, and it's at this point that I start to think I maybe shouldn't have bothered. I complete my pre-match ritual of checking in using the Futbology app, where upon I receive a phone call from Andrei, who has been notified of my arrival by my check-in, in disbelief that I have made the journey. Often Andrei and I admire each others commitment to the cause; there was no admiration in me making this trip! The evening then went about as badly as could be expected given the build up to the event; 1-0 up with ten minutes to play when Richarlison equalises to set up a grandstand finish. Eddie Nketiah comes off the bench and hits the post, before Demarai Gray ensures that I have the worst drive home ever by thumping one in from distance in the 92nd minute. I proceeded to drive for six hours with no stops through the night. Football does wonders for depression!
This year I really do not know what to think. Arsenal have not started the season in the rip-roaring way that they did last year, and are not going into this years trip to Goodison in the kind of form that they had last February. However, there is a different aura about this side, and with the troubles that Everton find themselves in, anything less that three point will be considered a poor result and will likely lead to them being further behind the pace setters.
There are other factors to consider here though. While writing this, Everton have just confirmed the takeover of the club by an American private equity firm, meaning that their supporters will no doubt be lifted and motivated. Perhaps more significantly, Arsenal have had the vast majority of their first-team squad on international duty, whereas Everton have had a large number remaining at their training ground. They have had almost two weeks to prepare for this fixture and come up with a strategy to beat Arsenal, while we've had approximately three days to work as a group. This is no excuse, but certainly something to factor in when previewing a game like this.
Arsenal know they need to find a way of winning these types of games if they are to mount another serious title challenge. With the return of Champions League football in midweek followed by the North London Derby on Sunday, it is vital that Arsenal go into this run with maximum points achieved at Goodison Park.
As mentioned in a previous blog, I am heading up for the weekend with my brother, to enjoy a day of gaming at The Arcade Club in Bury on Saturday before heading to Merseyside on Sunday morning. It promises to be an exciting and exceptional weekend, lets hope that Arsenal round it off with three much needed points.