Match Preview: Arsenal v Watford; Strangers in a Strange Land
Arsenal’s Premier League match with Watford on Sunday takes place in rarely traveled territory.
The Gunners have not won a league match since the 5-1 mauling of Everton on February 3. That five-week gap is the longest period between league wins since the 2007-08 season. Back then, Arsenal recorded four draws and a loss in February and March between victories over Blackburn and Bolton.
The current first team are also trying to avoid their fourth consecutive league defeat. Manager Arsène Wenger has never experienced that long a losing streak at the club.
To add to the uncharted character of this encounter, Arsenal do not have a meaningful league objective to play for. The Gunners are 13 points behind fourth-placed Tottenham with just nine games to play and trail fifth-placed Chelsea by eight. As a result, qualifying for next season’s Champions through their league finish is unlikely.
Meanwhile, it’s hard to see how Arsenal would not qualify for the Europa League. Because Manchester City won the League Cup and is just one victory away from securing a top-four position, sixth place in the league guarantees a European spot. If one of the top-five finishers (Manchester United, Spurs, or Chelsea) also wins the FA Cup, then seventh place in the league gets Arsenal a European bid.
In essence, Arsenal, currently five points ahead of seventh-place Burnley, would have to avoid an even more historic collapse to miss out on Europe.
All that to say that there’s not a tremendous amount riding on Sunday’s match.
What import it does carry relates to its timing. Three days after a crucial 2-0 win in Milan in the Europa League’s round of 16 and four days before the return leg, Wenger will be balancing the objectives of building the players’ confidence and facilitating their recovery.
What lineup changes might we see as a result? Much depends on the health of the fullbacks. Preferred starters Hector Bellerin and Nacho Monreal aren’t fit to play, and backups Calum Chambers and Sead Kolasinac both left Thursday’s match with injuries. In all likelihood, Ainsley Maitland-Niles will replace one of them on Sunday.
It’s also possible Rob Holding or Mohammed Elneny will come into the defense. If it’s Elneny, that leaves very little scope to give midfielders Granit Xhaka, Aaron Ramsey, or Jack Wilshere a break. Perhaps Alex Iwobi gets a game—but it’s all speculation.
This uncertainty and the absence of precedent could make this an interesting match. Serendipity, which is always at work in elite athletic contests and the primary reason I watch, may figure more prominently than usual.
Here’s hoping it favors the Gunners for the first time domestically in quite a while.
Trends to Watch
One notable development in the Milan victory was the use of a more defined midfield trio. Xhaka, Ramsey, and Wilshere were structurally cohesive; none ranged far enough forward to constitute a 4-2-3-1. This provided greater support for the defense and improved the flow of the attack. Watford’s strength is in midfield, so a similar approach from Arsenal might make sense.
How the Match Plays Out
No way to know. The contest over the midfield could determine the outcome.
Players to Watch
Arsenal. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. Arsenal’s big-money striker showed his flair in the penalty area in an otherwise unsightly performance at Brighton. He didn’t play on Thursday, so his zip and knack for goals could stand out.
Watford. Abdoulaye Doucouré. In the Hornets’ win over Chelsea, the Frenchman was imperious in midfield. He and compatriot Etienne Capoue make up a formidable duo.
Injuries and Suspensions
Arsenal: Cazorla (plantaris), Bellerin (knee), Monreal (back), Lacazette (knee)
Watford: Cleverley (thigh), Cathcart (knee), Chalobah (knee), Kaboul (foot), Success (knee)
Referee: Martin Atkinson (21M, 72Y, 4R)
Assistant referees: L Betts, K Hatzidakis
Fourth official: C Kavanaugh
UK: Sky Sports, 1330 GMT
US: NBCSN, Telemundo, Sling Blue, DirecTV Now, 9:30 AM EDT
Arsenal 2 – 1 Watford
The Manager’s Take (Courtesy Arsenal.com)
We come back to criticism – there’s only one way to respond to it. But first I’d like to say that on the day, they got a cheap penalty and so we were not just a bit unlucky.
Secondly, there’s always only one way to respond to these kinds of statements and that’s with the quality of our performance. Our motivation has to come from within the group and show how much we want it.
Match Facts (Courtesy BBC.co.uk)
- After winning their first seven Premier League games against Watford, Arsenal have lost their last two.
- Watford have won two of their last three games at the Emirates in all competitions, and have won four of their last seven away at Arsenal, losing the other three.
- Watford could become only the third side to win back-to-back away Premier League games at the Emirates, after Chelsea in November 2009 and Swansea in March 2016.
- The Gunners have scored in each of their last 11 games against Watford in all competitions.
- Arsenal have been beaten in five of their last seven matches in all competitions.
- They have suffered defeat in their last three league games; they have not lost four straight Premier League fixtures since March 1995, under Stewart Houston.
- The Gunners started the season with seven straight home league wins but have won just three of their subsequent seven top-flight games at the Emirates (D2, L2).
- Arsenal have lost 10 league games this season. Only once over the last 12 years have they lost as many as 10 across an entire season.
- Arsene Wenger’s side have conceded 41 league goals, which is only two fewer than bottom club West Brom (prior to Saturday’s games).
- Arsenal are without a clean sheet in 11 top-flight matches. It is their worse run since they conceded in 12 straight games between April and October 1988.
- Watford have won three of their five league games under new manager Javi Gracia (D1, L1).
- The Hornets could win three successive Premier League games for the first time since December 2015.
- They have drawn one and lost six of their last seven away league matches and have scored just twice during this run.
- Watford have won each of their last two matches 1-0, with Troy Deeney scoring the winning goal on both occasions.
- The last time a team won three straight Premier League games 1-0 with the same player scoring each time was Liverpool’s Daniel Sturridge in September 2013.
- Since beating Arsenal 2-1 in January 2017, Watford have lost six consecutive league games in London, conceding 17 goals during that run (2.8 per game).