Three key things from Everton 2 Arsenal 1

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 06: Demarai Gray of Everton celebrates with his team at the full time whistle during the Premier League match between Everton and Arsenal at Goodison Park on December 06, 2021 in Liverpool, England. (Photo by Naomi Baker/Getty Images)
LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 06: Demarai Gray of Everton celebrates with his team at the full time whistle during the Premier League match between Everton and Arsenal at Goodison Park on December 06, 2021 in Liverpool, England. (Photo by Naomi Baker/Getty Images) /

Everton managed a big win last night as they fought back from one down to beat Arsenal 2-1 and end an eight game run without a victory.

This result at Goodison Park has brought Everton manager Rafa Benitez and the board some time after they were both coming under huge pressure as the season was coming apart.

So, what were the three key things to take from last night’s win?

1. Demarai Gray has become essential to Everton

During the summer after Benitez had finally been appointed, there was still plenty of resistance and sceptisism from some Toffees’ supporters about the ex-Liverpool manager taking over at Goodison Park.

And then, because of the huge financial contraints the Blues’ were working under, Benitez had virtually no funds available to spend on strengthening the squad he had inherited.

The new Everton boss correctly identified that one major flaw with his new team was a lack of pace and width and having so little in the transfer kitty he added a free agent in Andros Townsend and then spent basically his entire funds on meeting Demarai Gray’s release clause.

The former Leicester City winger was playing in Germany at Bayer Leverkusen and his career seemed to have gone down a cul-de-sac after so much early promise.

Many supporters, including me, were unsure what version of Gray we would see and while there’s still a long way to go he has proved a terrific addition so far.

In the first month or so of the season Gray was brilliant offering exactly that pace, movement, skill on the ball and a genuine goal threat that once made him one of the most promising young English footballers around.

Although he’s not been as productive lately, he is still the most consistent attacking threat in the team and has continued to create chances and look dangerous.

Last night’s blistering finish to secure the win and three points has just underlined how important and fundamental Gray has become to this Blues’ team.

If he can carry on producing performances and goals like that then he could prove to be the bargain of this, and many, a recent season.

2. Benitez should continue with midfield three 

The manager did have a kind of three-man midfield yesterday as Townsend was playing as a sort of deep number ten as he previously has and this worked reasonably well. It at least gives some tactical flexibility allowing the team to switch between two and three in the centre of the pitch.

I, along with many supporters have recently been urging the manager to consider playing three in the centre of midfield to match opponents, create greater stability and provide extra cover in front of the defence. And, I think last night again showed the value of having that extra man in the middle.

While Gray and fellow goal-scorer Richarlison were both excellent for the whole match, it wasn’t really until Benitez brought on Andre Gomes and enabled Abdoulaye Doucoure to push farther forward that Everton really got on top in the game.

Recently, Gomes has become quite an effective substitute coming on later in matches and giving the Toffees’ greater possession and control of the ball. He did that again last night.

The other benefit is that this formation allows Doucoure to be much more involved in the attacking third where his powerful running, passing and additional goal-scoring threat can augment Everton’s attacking potential.

In fact, I think he can become that proxy number ten and this would get the best out of the Frenchman’s abilities.

3. Has Ben Godfrey started recovering his form?

One of the more worrying aspects along with so many others this season, has been the decline in the form of Godfrey after last season.

The young Englishman proved a fine addition after signing in summer 2020 and he was a pleasant surprise under Carlo Ancelotti’s reign, particularly when playing as an emergency left-back.

This campaign though he has perhaps had a case of ‘second season syndrome’ compunded by a long time out for Covid-related reasons.

Whatever exactly the problem, the ex-Norwich defender has struggled badly at times this season with some very poor performances in central defence.

Recently though there have been signs he is at last improving and last night he had his best game of the campaign so far playing again at left-back.

Benitez’s decision to drop Lucas Digne was possibly the most significant change in team selection he has made since becoming manager and I’m sure it was a surprise to many.

This decision seems to be because the Spaniard wants his full-backs to be essentially defenders first and foremost with the width in the side supplied by more orthodox wide players like Gray and Townsend.

Digne’s strengths are his attacking abilities, although we’ve not seen that much of his quality for a long time now.

If Benitez is going to continue with this approach then Godfrey could once more become integral to his defensive set-up. An improvement in form couldn’t be better timed.