As Bukayo Saka sheep-crooked the ball away from Vitalii Mykolenko with his left foot, then pushed it on with his right, finding a clear, crisp square of green inside the Everton penalty area, Jordan Pickford crouched low in front of him, hands funnelled between his knees, sensing the danger close to the ground, the obvious target by his feet.

Saka took one quick step and changed the subject, going high instead, pinging the ball with a thrillingly pure contact towards the smallest available space, near post, top corner, and bullseye-ing the square of netting beyond Pickford’s belatedly raised left hand.

It is a slightly wonky cliché that goalies should never be beaten there. The goal is big. There are many gambles and hedges and guesses in the moment. This was simply precision from Saka, the sense of a footballer who is able to bend the day to his will right now.

Saka has six goals and three assists in 10 league games since the World Cup. He has made the difference against Spurs, Manchester City and Manchester United – and now here when there was, despite the eventual 4-0 scoreline, just a tiny note of fear creeping in.

This was a significant hurdle for Arsenal. Not because it was Everton, a mediocre team now heading into new and previously unexplored versions of their own mediocrity: here we had Dyche-issue mediocrity, organised mediocrity, mediocrity that kept running right to the end.

For Arsenal the importance of this win was related to logistics. The basic symmetry of moving level with Manchester City on 25 games played. The re-establishment of their five-point lead. And now a run of three straight wins after the recent stumble, clear air between there and here.

And it is probably time now. Time to look down, and to wonder. Whisper it but there is a sense of something starting to clarify. Arsenal have 13 more league games in the space of 12 weeks. Of those, eight are, on the face of it, eminently winnable for a serious title contender. The four toughest-looking fixtures are Fulham, Liverpool, Manchester City and Newcastle, all away from home.

Martin Ødegaard celebrates scoring Arsenal’s third goal. Photograph: Peter Cziborra/Action Images/Reuters

But given the pattern of the season it is reasonable to expect City to drop points on their own run. By any sensible simulation Arsenal can afford to drop eight or nine of them from here and still win the league. They only dropped five points from August to February before shipping eight in three games last month. The question is: which of these is real? The first version wins the league with gas to spare from here.

If they do it seems inevitable that Saka will lead that push, if only because this is very obviously his role in this team. Arsenal had been poor before that opening goal late in the first half. Mikel Arteta had picked an unchanged team, persisting with Leandro Trossard as a false nine. Dyche picked a midfield that looked like it might be handy helping you to move house, or disassembling a Spitfire, but with enough craft to create the first openings of the game.

At which point, enter: the point of difference. There has been some unsettling talk around Saka about the physical treatment he gets from other teams. He is overall the ninth most fouled player in the league, which isn’t really that high on the list for a winger who plays every game and is the chief threat for the league leaders. But there is a difference with Saka. He doesn’t want to be fouled. His game is about running past you. The fouls against him are not light trips or legs hung out or free-kick opportunities earned, Grealish-style.

Saka’s aim is to keep running, to keep taking slices out of the left side of your defence. These fouls tend to be proper collisions, interrupted momentum, a body that is trying to stay up and go forward not already heading down. Little wonder they might take a little more out of him.

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Although not so much here, where Everton simply double-teamed Saka at the start and defended well for half an hour or so. Dyche was out throwing shapes in his technical area early on. When Arteta, or Pep Guardiola whirl their arms around mid-game they seem to be describing abstract shapes, to be channelling algebra, physics, calculus. Dyche looks like he’s ripping out stud walls and rewiring a barn. Arteta is signing theory, ideas about space and time and movement. Dyche is building an extension out there.

The game changed when Oleksandr Zinchenko came inside for the first time. Suddenly he was on the right, zipping a couple of give and gos, head up, causing Mykolenko to be drawn into his arc, opening the pace to put Saka in on goal.

Then it was two. Before half-time Saka made it, nicking the ball and putting it into the path of Gabriel Martinelli. And by the end Saka had scored one and made one. Trossard set one up for Martin Ødegaard. Eddie Nketiah made the fourth for Martinelli, who now has four goals in his last three games.

This is a tribute to Arteta’s boldness in switching to the false nine formation in a bid to draw a little more out of Martinelli. It is relatively bold gambit, mid-title race, but right now the pieces are falling into place; with a sense that this team is ready, at the very least, to push it to the end.


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