Originally published for Goal UK on 10th November 2012.
It all seemed too easy. Olivier Giroud powered Arsenal into an 11th-minute lead and Lukas Podolski doubled it not long after. It was billed as a tricky, banana skin sort of game; the type of match they would have breezed through a decade ago, but equally it is the test Arsene Wenger’s side have regularly failed in recent times.
The complacency so synonymous with the modern Arsenal; the Arsenal that are accustomed to deflecting questions about their experience, fortitude and mental strength, all came to the fore on Saturday afternoon.
Fulham are a good side, but after carving out a two-goal lead, Wenger’s men should never have been left praying for one of their older heads to convert a last-gasp penalty. That the spot kick was missed, saved by Mark Schwarzer, will lend further weight to the suggestions that Arsenal are too fragile to mount any sort of title challenge.
Further dropped points instead call for a more severe critique of Wenger’s side. It is almost universally accepted that a Premier League challenge is beyond the Gunners, but what about their position in the Champions League?
Some 200 miles north of the Emirates, Everton, perennial contenders for the top four but so often nearly men, put together a rousing comeback at home to Sunderland.
The grit and determination so often attributed to David Moyes’ Toffees will no doubt be wheeled out as the defining factor in victory, but the difference now is that where once it was enough to keep Everton clinging onto the coat tails of their rivals, now it is pushing them to the front of the queue.
It is an unfamiliar scenario. Past years have seen Everton leave their charge late, often too late, with a bitter taste and thoughts of “what if?” prevailing. Yet this time the omens are good.
Marouane Fellaini and Nikica Jelavic’s goals propelled the club to the 20 point mark and ensured that along with West Brom, they sit firmly in fourth spot. The last time the Toffees hit the 20 point mark after 11 games, they finished fourth.
Careful planning on a small budget, coupled with a close-knit, purposeful squad of players has pushed Everton towards the holy grail, the Champions League. Consistency and continuity have ensured Moyes’ side have always remained competitive at the top end of the table, but it is perhaps only now, in a season in which fourth place is most certainly up for grabs, we are seeing a power shift.
The irony in all of this is Fellaini’s future. The Belgian has racked up six league goals already this season and embodies this modern Everton better than most; tough but fair and with an air of authority and pomp.
Unfortunately this has led to interest from bigger, better financed clubs and Fellaini has done little to shun the interest. But as the tides of power shift, he may find his thirst for Champions League football is best served at Goodison Park.
Wenger spoke after the 3-3 draw with Fulham of being pleased with his team’s second-half response. Arsenal played with intensity and diffused a threatening Fulham team for much of the second 45 minutes. But when it mattered, the Gunners slipped. They handed the effervescent Dimitar Berbatov a penalty and although Giroud hauled his team level, ultimately Arsenal failed to claim the three points they expected and indeed needed after a miserable run of results.
Complacency has set in – some would argue from top to bottom of the club – and it is a greater problem than just a fortnight of poor form. The club are paying for years of squad neglect and now find themselves in a state of semi-permanent transition, just as those around them near the completed article.
It is all good Wenger insisting he will “keep working on it” but unless they rediscover the ferocity and menace they have displayed in years gone by, Arsenal may find their coveted and almost guaranteed place in Europe’s top competition will vanish as swiftly as their lead did on Saturday.