Exactly what Arsenal need most has been a popular subject of debate for years, mostly because the argument hasn’t really changed. Whether it’s a top striker or a top centre-back, Wenger is on the brink of acquiring two players he believes can answer critics on both sides of that debate. However, after just one point from the opening two games, whatever transpires between now and the close of the window, the thing Arsenal surely needed more than anything today was three points. Especially given that Arsenal’s recent record against Watford (in the league, at least) is flawless.
Arsenal started the game brightly, dominating possession and creating openings. Mesut Özil was rested for the opening fixture and brought on late in the second. Starting today, clearly fit, he looked imperious. When the team news was released an hour before kickoff, I’d be lying if I said the midfield three of Xhaka, Cazorla and Özil didn’t make me a little giddy. Xhaka’s presence also, even at this early age of the season, is a reassuring one. A midfielder who thinks defensively first, while possessing the range of passing he does, is something Arsenal’s midfield has long been crying out for. As Xhaka anchored, ahead of him Watford’s midfield were struggling to keep pace with the technical ability, passing and movement of Arsenal’s forward four. Alexis, starting as a central striker, naturally drifted left throughout the first half, causing Walcott, starting on the right, to continually drift centrally.
Mesut Özil is one of those players who seem to find time and space on the ball that others can’t. In one such instance, he was able to lift his head, see an unmarked Alexis moving towards the penalty spot and dink a delightfully weighted pass in his direction. Alexis was clattered by Nordin Amrabat, elbowed across the head and thrown to the floor. As the commentators on my feed debated the validity of one of the simplest penalty decisions I’ve ever seen, Santi Cazorla dispatched it for his first goal in almost 18 months.
The pace of the game understandably dropped after the goal, as Arsenal afforded Watford a little more time and space, while also remaining completely untroubled. Watford however, started to ease into the game, threatening from counter attacks. The pressure gradually built until a rapid Watford counter attack forced an impressive reaction save out of Cech, to stop Koscielny volleying into his own goal. The incident seemingly sparked Arsenal back into life.
Everything was going down Arsenal’s left. Alexis was looking as tireless as ever, but with a level of added conviction he’d lacked in the opening two fixtures. The space formed on the right was allowing Hector Bellerín (who was excellent today, by the way) to roam forward and link up well with Theo Walcott. Theo also displayed an impressive work-rate throughout and it was his well-placed pass across the face of goal that Alexis was able to, somewhat awkwardly, tap home on 40 minutes. Five minutes later, on the stroke of half-time, Alexis turned provider – floating a precise cross from the left into the path of the onrushing Özil, who headed home. Arsenal were playing slick, incisive football and getting their rewards. Even if the points weren’t yet guaranteed, this was the performance Arsenal needed.
The second half was an entirely different one from the first. Rather than exercising damage limitation, Watford boss, Walter Mazzarri made an attacking change and his team showed a great deal more attacking intent as a result. Arsenal seemed unready for it and the waves of attacking pressure proved too much for Arsenal’s defence after 57 minutes. After a series of blocked attempts, Watford’s summer signing, Roberto Pereyra found the net to give the Hornets hope.
Rob Holding and Laurent Koscielny have done well to develop any kind of coherent central defensive pairing in such a short amount of time. The pair that kept a clean sheet at Leicester last week impressed again here. Holding’s stock amongst Arsenal fans and others alike continues to rise. That said, the work done by Granit Xhaka to guard them ensured they had little to do.
Mazzarri had clearly identified Arsenal’s left as the base for their attack and for a period, Nacho Monreal admirably weathered the storm of pressure. After 70 minutes, Jack Wilshere and Mohammed Elneny were brought on to establish midfield authority and reclaim some possession – Özil and Oxlade-Chamberlain departed. At least that was what I assumed was the intent, until both of them were caught out charging forward minutes later with an unsuccessful counter of their own. By the time Kieran Gibbs replaced Nacho Monreal – on 74 minutes – the game was stretched, but out of Watford’s reach.
In truth, Arsenal had killed the game off before half-time and Watford’s fightback, though admirable, was futile. Clear-cut chances were few and far between in the final quarter and Arsenal, in relative comfort thanks to and devastating first half, held on. Whisper it, but there has emerged a feint whiff of optimism around Arsenal this week. With the arrival of a new centre-back and striker imminent, and the first win of the season in the bag, there are at least causes for optimism. The side’s first half performance today, particularly the standout displays of Özil, Xhaka, Alexis, Walcott and Bellerín will surely embolden that optimism. But, like I said, whisper it.