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.