Watching the faces file out of the Goodison Park dressing rooms it was impossible to tell that most of those emerging had been involved in one of the least eventful Premier League games in memory. Everton and Arsenal had created no more than three goalscoring chances between them but anyone who stopped to reflect was keener to dwell on the possibilities that lie ahead.
Behind those doors both sets of players had just been addressed by their managers: the first time Carlo Ancelotti and Mikel Arteta had debriefed their charges on a matchday. The consequence was a collective spring in the step, a bubbliness out of keeping with what had passed and a sense of optimism that this time, under managers who set huge stock in making individuals better, things may just be different.
“Be brave, take responsibility and work hard for each other” had been the essence of Arteta’s message to Arsenal, six of whose starting XI were aged 23 or under. The building blocks would be enough this time. Even if the end product was sorely lacking they duly ran, battled, showed for the ball and did most of the basics that have seemed inconvenient to many of their more senior colleagues.
They were enthused to learn afterwards they had done much of what Arteta is seeking, although at least one of their teammates could have given them fair warning of those criteria. “For sure,” Calum Chambers said when asked whether it was clear, during the two seasons he played alongside Arteta at Arsenal, the midfielder would become a manager. “When I came here he was one of the senior players; he helped me and gave me advice on positional play. He was a very intelligent player – you could always tell he had that side to him. I’m excited; everyone’s excited to work with him and learn his philosophy.”
Chambers had just put in one of his best performances of the season at centre-back and been named the man of the match, even if he will have tougher afternoons. He was 19 when he joined Arsenal from Southampton and, within two months, would make his England debut. Since then he has plateaued, with loans to Middlesbrough and Fulham punctuating a bit-part presence at his parent club, and at 24 it is time to discover exactly where his ceiling lies.
This is what Arteta will have to judge and there are several other examples of players in Arsenal’s squad who occupy that grey area between potential and fully known quantity. Lucas Torreira and Rob Holding are others, while refining the more frustrating tendencies of the younger Matteo Guendouzi will surely be a high priority. It is not necessarily anyone’s fault when footballers fall short of early expectations; but they were usually signed for a reason, and Arteta inherits a number of individuals who are not too far gone to reset.
Perhaps that is one reason why the word “excited” arose several times in Chambers’s short conversation. “He was proud of the way we worked and how we worked hard,” he said of Arteta’s reaction; banality on the pitch had quickly translated into buoyancy off it.
Ancelotti has a similar task but his focus may be different. He is a proven cajoler of top-level players and one of the niggles over his suitability for the role is that Everton have few of those but Gylfi Sigurdsson comes close when operating at the peak of his powers. The Icelander is out of form, even if a first-half free-kick was one of Everton’s better efforts, and not usually the most effusive speaker but there was a sparkle in his eyes when the prospect of learning under the three-times Champions League winner was raised.
“I’m delighted,” Sigurdsson said. “He’s obviously a fantastic manager with a lot of experience and a lot of success, so he definitely knows what he’s doing. He knows what he’s talking about, so I think the boys will have a lot of respect. We just can’t wait to start working with him.”
At 30, Sigurdsson may start running out of chances to reassume his billing as one of the league’s better attacking midfielders. At that stage of a career it is easy to stop learning but Ancelotti’s name is the kind that makes senior professionals sit up straight. It is fair to think he may have a similar effect on players such as Lucas Digne and Richarlison, who are Sigurdsson’s junior but two of the more compelling talents from whom the manager will seek to extract a consistent tune.
Perhaps it was Duncan Ferguson who best summed up the feeling in both groups. Ferguson’s moment in the spotlight is over for now but his enthusiasm pulsated around Goodison’s arteries long after the end. “I can’t wait to start learning again on Monday,” Ferguson said of assisting Ancelotti. “We’re in awe of him really. We’ll go on Monday and we’ll go with everything we’ve got.” For Everton and Arsenal, a brand new education awaits.
The Guardian Sport