Saturday, October 17, 2015

Match Preview, Watford v Arsenal: Return to Our Regularly Scheduled Programming

Here’s the thing about sport in the Internet 3.0 age: It both fulfills and warps our need for drama.

Because the desire for a narrative to provide excitement and emotional succor is limitless, and the means to sate that desire always available, we raise otherwise tedious affairs to an undue level of importance. The Arsenal Annual General Meeting is a perfect example—who really thought that gathering would reveal anything of substance about the club?

Of course the presentations from the homogeneous board and executives were pro forma. Of course manager Arsène Wenger was the star of the show. Of course interrogators did their self-important best to put themselves at the center of this manufactured drama.

Fortunately, the slog through that story lasted less than a day. Now we can return to the reason to follow sport, the actual competition: Arsenal make the short yet unfamiliar trip to Vicarage Road to face Watford on Saturday.

The prospects in general and in particular are encouraging. The Gunners emerged from a challenging three-game stretch in a improved league position. Stirring and convincing wins over Leicester City and Manchester United, the fourth- and first-place teams in the league before their losses to Arsenal, have lifted the Gunners to second place.

And performances against Watford-like opponents have pushed Arsenal to top league finishes in recent years. In 2014-15, the Gunners racked up 54 of 60 possible points against the bottom half of the Premier League, only dropping points in draws with Everton, Leicester City, and Hull City. The total from the previous season was 53 of 60, marred by the opening-day loss to Aston Villa.

The outcome of any sporting endeavor is not inevitable, however. That’s the source of the drama.

This matchup with Watford has several elements of a trap. It’s an away game right after an international break against a team whose players did not labor intensely, if at all, for their national teams. Just four Hornets, Austrian Sebastian Prödl, Ecuador’s Juan-Carlos Paredes, the Greek José Holebas, and Odion Ighalo of Nigeria, played for their senior national teams during the most recent break.

More Arsenal players (seven) scored during international matches than that, while a total of 11 Gunners were away on senior international duty.

In addition, Watford is a physical and effective defensive side, ranking in the league’s top five for fouls and interceptions. The Hornets have allowed just one goal at home, in a 1-0 loss to Crystal Palace, and held the potent offenses of Southampton and Swansea scoreless there.

That approach will test Arsenal’s collective concentration and patience. Will the Gunners be able to fire right from the start, as they did against Manchester United? As is often the case in the Premier League, an early goal would be a boon. It would force Watford to adjust its defense-first plan and open space for the speed and skill of Arsenal’s attacking players to thrive.

But this team has shown that it can grind out the results, particularly on the road, as well. The wins at Newcastle and Crystal Palace, achieved when the Gunners were struggling to score goals, might be experiences that they can draw on this weekend. Then again, now that Alexis and Theo Walcott are firing more effectively, the pattern might be less labored on Saturday.

Regardless of the method, a win is crucial for Arsenal’s title aspirations. It would represent a positive kickoff to the upcoming series of eight winnable Premier League matches, it would bank three points, and it would keep the story where it belongs—on the team’s on-field success.

Players to Watch

Arsenal. Theo Walcott. It was tough to take your eyes off the new Arsenal front man against Manchester United. He pulled the defense around without mercy, harried them when they had the ball, and twice set up teammates for goals. A similar performance away from home against less-headlining opposition would strengthen his center forward bona fides.

Watford. Odion Igalho. Watford has scored just six goals in eight league matches, and Igalho has five of those. His combination with Troy Deeney has produced three goals and makes them one of the top provider-goalscorer combinations in the league.

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