To have any hope of overtaking leaders Leicester City and second place Tottenham, the Gunners must win all of their remaining eight matches. They would then finish the season with nine consecutive wins, commencing with the impressive victory at Everton two weeks ago.
It’s an unlikely proposition, but consider this: Arsenal are actually four points better off than they were from parallel fixtures in the 2014-2015 season. If they repeat their results against their last eight opponents – all victories last season – they’ll finish with 79 points, versus 75 last season.
The players seem to understand the task and the stakes. Left back Nacho Monreal remarked to the official website this week:
We’re aware that we don’t just depend on ourselves - that’s obvious. Right now we’re in third place, so I think the only objective we need to set for ourselves is winning the eight matches we have left, and then what will be will be. It’s not just down to us. Even if we do win all eight games, that doesn’t mean we’ll be champions, but what does depend on us is winning those eight games.
How the Gunners arrived at this position is well analyzed territory. Among the many reviews, playmaker and likely Player of the Year Mesut Özil’s take, delivered to the German website Spox.com this week, was particularly interesting. He said:
Considering the season, we have to admit that we have botched it. We’ve not brought out against the smaller teams what we actually can. That will carry an immediate penalty in the Premier League. Nevertheless, we still have all the possibilities. We have to watch for Leicester and Tottenham to slip up and then be there.
There’s a chance to right that mistake, at least partly, on Saturday against Watford.
Not only are the Hornets the type of team Arsenal have dominated in seasons past, one in the bottom half of the league table, but they’re the team that ousted Arsenal from the FA Cup just three weeks ago. The Gunners should therefore have ample motivation on Saturday.
Monreal acknowledged this, saying, “We know it’s going to be difficult against Watford because we only played them recently, and they knocked us out of the FA Cup. But we’re hungry for revenge.”
If Arsenal can channel that spirit and execute a plan similar to the one against Everton, the performance could be eye-catching. In particular, the energetic and synchronized pressure applied by Danny Welbeck, Alexis Sanchez, and Alex Iwobi can disturb Watford’s defenders and midfielders and prevent them from launching long balls to holdup man Troy Deeney.
Watford are also susceptible to quick ball movement on the flanks and in the channels between their central and wider players – the kind of activity that led to Danny Welbeck’s opening goal against Everton. They’d prefer to coax Arsenal to build up play methodically through the middle or to lob in hopeful crosses.
Not allowing Watford to dictate these terms should give Arsenal a strong chance of winning its first home match since the famous victory over Leicester City in mid-February. That’s a necessity for the Gunners to finish the season strong.
Alexis’s switch to the right side of Arsenal’s attack has enhanced his contributions of late. Against a mentally and physically roaming left back, as Everton’s Leighton Baines was on the day, Alexis can be devastating. He doesn’t seem as predictable on the right as he was on the left, and Watford’s left back Nathan Aké appears to be a promising target.
Where to Worry
Watford’s main threat lies in the old-school holdup play of Troy Deeney. Both the goals the Hornets scored in the FA Cup quarterfinal win resulted from Deeney’s interventions in the Arsenal penalty area. Arsenal’s central defenders and deep-lying midfielders will need to harass Deeney and minimize the service to him.
This will be a telling contest for Arsenal. An energetic performance and positive result will maintain the remote hope of a title miracle and strengthen the hold on a Champions League spot, while a lackluster one will render the final seven games mundane. The thinking here is that Arsenal can summon the energy and quality to defeat Watford and start the run-in with a surge.
Players to Watch
Arsenal. Danny Welbeck. The front man has energized Arsenal’s attack and has delivered the end product, with three goals in five league matches since his return from injury. Welbeck’s speed and savvy could unnerve Watford’s rather stationary central defense.
Watford. Troy Deeney. When Watford succeed offensively, the play has flowed through their big man up front. He’s strong, persistent, and clever and has played a role in 15 of the Hornets’ 28 league goals.