Everton face Arsenal on Saturday and it will be the first time former Toffee Mikel Arteta lines up against the side that brought him to England in 2005. The Spaniard was – and still is – loved by the blue half of Merseyside, and his presence adds a poignant note to a fixture that rarely brings joy for Evertonians.
Arteta’s delightful skills and clear passion for Everton endeared him greatly to the Goodison Park faithful. In six and a half years at Everton, Arteta captained the side, acted as the team’s playmaker and creative inspiration. He also formed close relationships with his teammates, not least Tim Cahill, who referred to Arteta as his best friend upon Arteta’s departure. The memories of Arteta’s finest moments in an Everton shirt – a stunning goal against Fiorentina, a derby goal against Liverpool last season, and all manner of adroit turns, passes and lay-offs – linger strongly in the mind, but now they will be turned on the team that took him to their heart. If it is to be Arteta who delivers what feels like an unavoidable killer blow when the two sides meet, his association with Everton will only make it more painful.
The killer blow feels unavoidable because Everton’s record against Arsenal is particularly depressing. The Gunners have scored 79 goals against Everton in 36 Premier League games, their most profitable opponent, not lost any of the last eight meetings between the sides and have taken 19 points from just their last seven matches – three more than Everton have taken in nearly twice as many games. For Everton to overturn history they will have to overturn their recent form. As bad as some results have been lately, performances have at times been even worse. If Everton cannot raise their game at the Emirates Stadium the encounter may not be pretty, although a little crumb of comfort is that Everton do often step up a level when faced with a more difficult challenge, not enough perhaps to take three points, but to at least avoid a convincing defeat.
This season Everton have faced Manchester United, Manchester City and Chelsea, all, like Arsenal, title challengers, and despite suffering defeats in each match have not been completely overrun. It is nevertheless a meagre comfort, and also a sad indictment of Everton’s current status. Surprises do however happen, and can never be predicted – otherwise they would not be a surprise – and a well-organised and efficient Everton could upstage Arsenal. The Gunners are vulnerable. Per Mertesacker has not fully convinced, and Arsene Wenger is facing a mini-crisis due to a lack of full-backs. For Everton to exploit these minor weaknesses they will need to be much more intelligent than their approach against Stoke City last week, surely – hopefully, at any rate – the nadir of their season. If that defeat does not prove to be Everton’s lowest point, it could be a very long winter.
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