This was the match I chose this week to look at, mainly because with Watford under new management, I wanted to see if anything had changed at all. During the international break, the Hornets sacked manager Javi Gracia, after a really poor start to the season had seen them stuck to the bottom of the Premier League, and replaced him with former manager Quique Sanchez Flores, who had previously been in charge in 2015-2016, during their first season back in the Premier League after finishing as runners-up in the Championship the year before. I always thought he had done better with Watford than a lot of people gave him credit for, and I am glad that he is back, and, by the evidence below, so are Watford.
The Hornets started with a back four for this match against Arsenal, which gave them a lot of stability and protection of their goal, certainly to start with. This is exactly what they needed after their previous matches, but in the early stages of the match, I thought that they were the better team. They were playing intricate one-two passes and these and other good moves were opening up plenty of opportunities for them to get at Arsenal and hit them where the Gunners’ weakness is – their defence.
One thing in particular that I noticed about Watford’s game plan was that they had their two “wingers”, Will Hughes and Gerard Deulofeu, playing almost on the sidelines, and this added good width and really stretched the pitch in Watford’s favour, but there is a downside to this tactic, which is that it also leaves gaps between players for Arsenal’s attacking players to exploit, and this is exactly how Arsenal managed to score their opening goal, through Gabon striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.
Arsenal’s second goal came because Watford’s back four, whilst being strong, were too flat, and when defending it is important that you don’t look like you are queuing for a bus. By this, I mean it shouldn’t be just one straight line in front of the goal, because it makes it so easy for opposing wide players to get in behind and create opportunities for the strikers and attacking midfielders in the box, waiting to pounce on those chances. Unfortunately for Watford, this was exactly how Arsenal went two ahead; right-back Ainsley Maitland-Niles found space in behind and squared the ball in behind the Watford back four, and teed up Aubameyang for his second of the game, and Arsenal were leading 2-0.
Watford’s lack of confidence was clear, and understandable given their poor start to the season, but one thing they can do is to chase balls down, and that meant that their first goal of the game couldn’t have been more easily scored. They pressed a goal kick and put Gunners keeper Bernd Leno under pressure, and this allowed Tom Cleverley to put the ball in the net and punish them. There was a claim that Gerard Deulofeu had one foot inside the Arsenal box when the goal kick was taken, which is a foul, but in all honesty I don’t think it mattered. For me, Watford would have scored anyway, such was the error from Arsenal.
Another thing I noticed about the Hornets was that their midfield trio of Tom Cleverley, Gerard Deulofeu and Abdoulaye Doucoure will be essential to their hopes of staying up, because I thought all three were excellent on Sunday. Watford’s second goal came from a counter-attack, but I don’t think it would have worked if those three hadn’t played the ball through to the attack as well as they did do. For me, their ability to do this allows the more advanced attacking players, such as Hughes and Roberto Pereyra to just stay upfield and wait for the ball to come to them, rather than having to track back and win it and then have to run with it, which is risky at the best of times. It was this ability to run that enabled Watford to win the penalty that got them their equaliser, which just shows how the little details like getting your midfield arrangement correct really does matter to the outcomes of games.
From Arsenal’s point of view, I thought their biggest mistake was not watching the aforementioned width that Watford had with Hughes and Deulofeu. They were too narrow when defending, and this allowed Watford’s wide players to have all the time in the world to come inside and get shots away, as well as just moving the ball wide and waiting to put a cross into the box. In particular, Daryl Janmaat, Deulofeu and summer signing Ismaila Sarr, the Senegal international winger, were excellent at this. All of them created and had shots from the wide areas, purely because they could.
This is why, in all honesty, I think Arsenal struggle defensively. They need to address this quickly, otherwise other teams will cotton on to and take from this match, and see it as a way of beating the Gunners.