Post Match Review
Arsenal survive physical Watford to reclaim fourth place
It could have been a disaster. Over the last month, many Arsenal supporters have cast an eye toward the cluster of away fixtures in the run-up to the end of to the season with concern. After the embarrassment at Goodison Park last Sunday, the nerves were almost palpable heading into Monday’s battle with Watford at Vicarage Road. Mercifully, the Gunners managed to survive a rather weak performance to capture the 1-0 victory in spite of multiple missed opportunities and squandering their man advantage for most of the match. Focus now shifts once again to Thursday night, where Arsenal will be travelling to Napoli to try and close out their Europa League battle with the Partenopei and advance to the semi-finals of the competition.
Xhaka returns, Dinos finally spotted again
While it would be disingenuous to say that Arsenal might have won against Everton last Sunday if Granit Xhaka was fit and able to play, the match was a prime example of how Arsenal can suffer without their midfield lynchpin. It was, therefore, a relief to see him immediately returned to his starting role against Watford by Unai Emery, having regained his fitness after a brief injury layoff.
Despite taking a few minutes to knock off the rust, Xhaka was again his usual, metronomic self, controlling the Gunners’ midfield and keeping the ball circulating around the shape as Arsenal looked to find space against a stubborn Watford defence. The Swiss international finished the day having completed 88 of his 100 passes, including two key passes and five accurate long balls to go along with his two shot attempts. His most dynamic performance, it was not, but as Emery’s decision to re-insert him into the team at the earliest opportunity shows, Granit Xhaka will be a vital part of team for the most important part of the season.
Elsewhere, fans were both surprised and ecstatic to see the return of Konstantinos Mavropanos, who was handed the start by Unai Emery in place of the suspended Sokratis. The promising young Greek defender at times looked like a player who hadn’t seen action in the Premier League since the end of last season, but he kept his play simple and exited the game just before the hour mark with his team still nursing the 1-0 lead.
Mavropanos kept his play simple, making plays in defence when called upon and making the simple passes, finishing with a 96% pass completion rate. Despite his appearance ultimately being cut short before he could go the full 90 minutes, his four interceptions, three clearances and one blocked shot were enough to remind fans why the young defender is held in such high regard by the club.
His late return from injury this season combined with the team’s reduced squad for the Europa League due to a dearth of homegrown players meant that he was excluded from that competition, but Emery’s willingness to include him in an important Premier League match suggests there is much more to come in the future for the defender. In Mavropanos, Arsenal have a tall, physical defender with natural instincts for the position, and he should factor into the mix in a much more prominent role next season.
Hard work pays off
When Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang first arrived at Arsenal from Dortmund last January, he was not exactly known for his tenacious defensive effort. However, as the season has gone on and Unai Emery has demanded ever-more work rate out of his players, Aubameyang has stepped up his intensity in a big way.
It must have pleased Emery to no end when, after Watford goalkeeper Ben Foster received a back pass from a defender, Aubameyang tore after him in pursuit, sensing a moment where he could grind out a goal for the team. As Foster tried to take a touch away from the striker, the Gabon international closed in on him like a rabid dog, nicking the ball from his feet and slotting it quickly into the back of the net for Arsenal’s first and only goal of the evening.
It was the sort of play one might expect to see from Alexandre Lacazette, by far the more industrious of the Gunners’ star strike partnership, and it was ultimately the difference in the match. He and wingers Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Alex Iwobi might not have been in top form in front of goal, but their work rate in a tough away match against a team that always plays Arsenal tough cannot be overstated. All three have received criticism this season for being wasteful in front of goal, but for them to keep on shooting and taking the fight to the Watford back line is a testament to the fitness and motivation Emery has brought with him to the club. A perfect performance it was not, but the Gunners will come away from the match pleased to have kept pace with their top four rivals.
Man of the Match? Him!?
With Sokratis Papastathopoulos suspended until 22 April after his second accumulated yellow card ban of the season, fans were worried that it meant the return of Shkodran Mustafi to a prominent defensive role. Sure enough, the German was re-instated into the starting XI by Emery as a right back, and much to the surprise of many, he scarcely put a foot wrong en route to a Man of the Match consideration.
Mustafi was solid all evening, even after being shifted back into a centre back role as Emery tinkered with the formation in the second half in search of a clinching second goal. He won all seven of his aerial duels against a very physical Watford side, and he rounded off his evening with two tackles, four interceptions and five clearances. While he has earned a reputation for untimely blunders this season, Mustafi kept his composure even as Watford’s desperation to claw back a goal in the later stages ramped up the pressure on the Arsenal defence.
It has been far from a perfect season for the defender once heralded as a solution to Arsenal’s defensive frailties upon signing from Valencia in 2016, but it was a relief to see him come up big in a pivotal moment of the season. Emery has maintained a level of trust in him that many observers might not have, and perhaps his faith will be rewarded in the run-up to the end of the season with more performances like this.
Deeney eats his words
Watford captain Troy Deeney is no great fan of Arsenal Football Club. A long-serving member of a club whose training ground is separated from Arsenal’s sparkling complex in London Colney by little more than a hedge, the striker has always seemed to relish a battle with the Gunners. His direct, physical style is at odds with the slick passing and technical quality that make up the Arsenal way of playing football, and in his mind, that is exactly what gives him the edge when the two teams meet.
After a 2017 match between the two sides that saw Arsenal lose 2-1 to a physical Watford side, Deeney infamously remarked that the Gunners “lacked the cojones” to compete with the Hornets, despite a questionable penalty call on the day that arguably decided the match in his team’s favour. His words have since remained a subject of debate any time the two sides meet, first being used by fans as an indictment of Arsene Wenger’s management, but now are being turned back on Deeney himself after his early red card on Monday left his team down a man for nearly 80 minutes of action.
The sending off occurred when the bulky striker was trying to chase down Arsenal’s most diminutive player, Lucas Torreira, who is optimistically listed at 5’6. After the midfielder got his pass away, Deeney’s swinging elbow caught him in the side of the head, sending him sprawling to the turf. After a brief consultation with the side judge, referee Craig Pawson brandished a red card in the face of the confused and angry Deeney, who left the pitch in a rage, even shouting at Emery and whipping his shirt off before disappearing down the tunnel. It was a poor foul for the Watford captain to commit, and it has all but ensured that Arsenal fans will not let him forget his unsavoury quote for a long, long time.
The only thing that matters
Unai Emery’s men did not exactly cover themselves in glory during Monday’s fraught 1-0 victory at Vicarage Road, but in the end, they got what they came for: three points. The win was enough to elevate the Gunners back into fourth place in the Premier League with just five matches left to play and a game in hand over Chelsea, who currently sit tied with Arsenal on 66 points.
In spite of this, many fans were far from pleased with the performance, citing poor end product and the narrow victory, even though Watford were forced to play the majority of the match down to ten men, as their principle concerns. While these complaints are not without merit, it must not be overlooked that the Gunners ultimately walked away with the positive result they so desperately needed.
Unfortunately, Arsenal’s performance on Monday night is unlikely to inspire confidence in a side that has struggled mightily on the road over the last two seasons. Tough away matches against Wolves, Leicester City and Burnley remain ahead of them on the schedule, and the Gunners still have not delivered a convincing argument that their away form has improved enough to extract the maximum points from those fixtures.
It is this questionable form that causes many still to believe that winning the Europa League is the easier route back to Champions League football. For his part, Unai Emery has bristled at his reputation as a Europa League specialist, reiterating that he wants Arsenal to get back into the Champions League by finishing in the top four. If the Gunners are to do this, they must set aside style and their lacklustre away form to win the rest of their league matches. It may not be beautiful, but in the end, it’s the only thing that matters.