LIVERPOOL, England — There is usually a red-letter day in a season when Arsenal can look back on the game that set their Premier League title hopes on a slippery slope.
It came as late as February last season, when a makeshift Manchester United overcame Arsene Wenger’s team with two goals from Marcus Rashford at Old Trafford, but it usually occurs during the winter months, when legs begin to tire during a relentless fixture programme that allows no pause for breath.
Arsenal’s hopes have often failed to outlast the Christmas decorations and it may well be the same again this time around.
Only time will tell how Arsene Wenger and his players ultimately reflect on their defeat at Everton, but while it was Arsenal’s first league defeat since the opening weekend of the season, this loss had the air of things beginning to overheat for the Gunners.
Arsenal had the possession and chances to put the game to bed long before Seamus Coleman cancelled out Alexis Sanchez’s deflected opener, but they failed to turn the screw when they had the opportunity.
Everton were low on confidence, subjected to audible criticism from their supporters and in danger of going under until Arsenal began to drop their intensity by slowing up when chasing loose balls and carelessly conceding possession in dangerous areas.
Ronald Koeman’s team were there for the taking, but Arsenal failed to display the ruthlessness that typifies all title winners and they paid a heavy price.
But their half-hearted performance was only a part of the story.
Defensively, Arsenal were damaged by the absence of the injured Shkodran Mustafi alongside Laurent Koscielny at centre-half, but even without the German, they should not have committed the cardinal sin — twice — of allowing their opponents to score from headers from the middle of the penalty box.
Coleman, one of the smallest players on the pitch, was allowed to head home Leighton Baines’ cross moments before half-time, while Ashley Williams was given a free run to head in Ross Barkley’s corner four minutes from full-time.
The Everton centre-half was left unmarked in the penalty area, with Mesut Ozil displaying a comical approach to dealing with the set piece by moving his head out of the way as the ball arrowed toward Williams.
“You can’t defend away from home on a corner like that,” Wenger admitted after the game. “I don’t think, with five to go, we deserved to lose the game, but we were caught on two headers. I think especially on the first one we were guilty.
“It was a very physical game. We faced many physical challenges and that disturbed our game but we were a bit unlucky to lose as well.”
The physical aspect of the game was another area that resulted in question marks hanging over Arsenal, even if the final foul count was 10 committed by each side.
Everton, after their slow start, began to claw themselves back into the game once they turned it into a battle of wills and mental strength.
“We chased and battled for every ball,” Koeman said.
Ozil was clearly targeted for robust challenges, even physical intimidation, and it worked, with the midfielder increasingly drifting out of the game, at times looking toward referee Mark Clattenburg for protection when it was not required.
Michael Owen, analysing the game as a television pundit, voiced what has become an open secret within the game with a simple post-match observation.
“There is something about Arsenal,” Owen said. “They struggle against aggressive teams.”
Arsenal are not quite the pushovers they were perhaps four or five years ago — the likes of Francis Coquelin and Granit Xhaka are more than capable of fighting fire with fire — but when compared to the likes of Chelsea and Manchester City, they are short on physical strength and toughness.
A lack of steel, defensive lapses and an inability to convert dominance into goals; against Everton, all of Arsenal’s frailties were exposed to deliver their first league defeat since August.
Until now, they have been able to overcome one or two of those issues in the same game, but this time, they paid the price when all three reared their head.
The job is now to iron out the flaws and bounce back against City on Sunday. That will be a wholly different challenge for Arsenal, facing a team less likely to want to turn the game into a physical battle.
But Everton had to play it that way, to drag Arsenal into areas they did not want to go.
Koeman still has his own problems to rectify, but confidence will be flowing after this game and the win could not have been better timed, with Liverpool due at Goodison next Monday.
“On Monday, the game against Liverpool is of course a totally different situation, but now we go with three points in the pocket,” Koeman said. “We know we are strong at home and still unbeaten.
“If we play with that passion and commitment, it is difficult to beat Everton at Goodison Park.
“We showed how we have to play: with commitment and aggression. You see the reaction of the crowd when you go for it and that’s what we did.