LONDON -- The roar of relief that greeted the final whistle in Arsenal's ramshackle 3-2 victory over Everton told its own story.
In front of the dugouts, Arsenal coach Mikel Arteta turned to embrace his coaching staff. On the pitch, his players shared tired, happy hugs with each other, their smiles reflecting both satisfaction after a hard afternoon's work and awareness of the good fortune that had enabled them to emerge with all three points.
Those who watch Arsenal closely discerned Arteta's positive impact on the team's performances right from the first match of his fledgling tenure, but having successfully turned his side into a more obdurate force -- witness the four successive Premier League draws they registered between early January and early February -- the expectation now is that those improvements will start to be reflected in their results.
Following last weekend's 4-0 win over Newcastle United and a hard-fought 1-0 success away to Olympiakos in the Europa League, Arsenal have strung together three successive wins in all competitions for the first time since September. The victory over in-form Everton took them up to ninth place in the table and with only four points now separating them from fifth place, which will provide a gateway to the Champions League if Manchester City's ban from the competition is upheld, a return to Europe's top table now feels closer than it has for months.
After the game, Arteta hailed the "spirit" and "resilience" his players had shown despite being "absolutely shattered" following the midweek trip to Athens. In his pre-match programme notes, he had highlighted the importance of recognising the difference between "what you want to do and what you can do" and on that front, the victory over Everton proved a useful case in point.
In terms of their attacking football and work rate, much of what Arsenal did will have pleased Arteta, whose selection decisions paid off for the most part. His choice of 20-year-old striker Eddie Nketiah over Alexandre Lacazette, who had scored the winner at Olympiakos, was vindicated in the 27th minute when the former Leeds United loanee leapt into the air to volley in a magnificent cross from substitute Bukayo Saka (on earlier than expected for the injured Sead Kolasinac) and cancel out Dominic Calvert-Lewin's early opener.
Dani Ceballos once again impressed alongside Granit Xhaka in the deeper midfield role Arteta has earmarked for him, with one vital challenge on the dangerous Richarlison early in the second half drawing loud approval from the Emirates Stadium faithful. Arteta's faith in Shkodran Mustafi also continues to bear fruit. While Arsenal looked shaky in their defensive third at times (more on that later), the much maligned German centre-back defended stoutly and produced a number of decisive interventions.
The figurehead of Arsenal's victory, though, was Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. His first goal, a Thierry Henry-style finish from David Luiz's brilliant through-ball, gave Arsenal the lead for the first time in the 33rd minute and his second, a centre-forward's header from Nicolas Pepe's in-swinging cross, restored the hosts' advantage after Richarlison had stabbed in an equaliser in first-half stoppage time.
With 17 goals, the Gabonese striker is now the Premier League's joint-top scorer alongside Leicester's Jamie Vardy, but it was his defensive contribution that really caught the eye. Operating wide on the left in a 4-2-3-1 formation that had morphed into a backs-to-the-wall 4-5-1 by the end, the Arsenal captain set the tone for his teammates with his tireless pressing and finished the match with a tally of tackles (three) that only Mustafi in a red shirt could equal.
"I'm so happy with him," Arteta said. "Because he's scoring very important goals for us, but as well, as a captain he's giving a great example to everybody else that a player of his calibre is able to work the way that he is working defensively.
"I had two questions: either he doesn't want to do it or he cannot do it physically. Once I found out that physically he could do it, it was just about convincing him to do it every three days. And he's showing that."
The gap between what Arteta wants to see from Arsenal and what he gets was reflected in the defensive shortcomings that allowed Everton to score two goals and pose an attacking threat throughout. Arsenal had kept clean sheets on their three previous outings, but any sense of defensive serenity vanished in the space of the 49 seconds that it took Calvert-Lewin to put Everton in front after the home side failed to deal with a Gylfi Sigurdsson free-kick.
Both Everton goals came from set-pieces, which continues to be a problem area for the Gunners: only relegation-threatened Aston Villa, with 14, have conceded more goals from dead-ball situations this season than the 12 shipped by Arsenal. Richarlison and Calvert-Lewin repeatedly exposed Arsenal's vulnerability to pace in behind their back four; had it not been for some inspired goalkeeping from Bernd Leno in the last 20 minutes, Carlo Ancelotti's men would have left north London with the point (or points) their performance deserved.
With assignments against Manchester United, Chelsea and Liverpool to follow, the outcome of Sunday's game represented a disappointing start to a sequence of fixtures that will test Everton's Champions League aspirations to the limit. For Arsenal, who face West Ham, Brighton, Southampton and Norwich in their next four league fixtures, the horizon looks a great deal clearer.