After racing past Southampton in the FA Cup on Saturday, the Gunners could not get out of the blocks on Tuesday night. It cost them dearly.
Within a quarter of an hour, Watford had a two-goal lead. The first came via an Aaron Ramsey deflection of Younes Kaboul’s free kick. Although the effort came from well outside the area, Arsenal goalkeeper Petr Cech could not adjust in time.
Just three minutes later, Ramsey was in another unfortunate place. The Welshman failed to control a Gabriel throw-in. Watford’s Etienne Capoue nicked the ball, juked Francis Coquelin and Shkodran Mustafi, and forced a pointblank save from Cech. Troy Deeney was there to poke home the rebound, and not for the first time this season, Arsenal faced a deficit against a team much lower in the table.
The response was tepid at best.
Arsenal strung passes together but failed to mount any threat on the Watford goal. Watford’s 4-1-4-1 formation packed the midfield and prevented the Gunners from moving from their own half into attack.
That showed in Arsenal’s passing statistics at halftime: Mustafi and central defensive partner Laurent Koscielny were the team’s top two passers of the first 45 minutes. In addition, the top passing combination, which for Arsenal often involves a midfielder and playmaker Mesut Özil, was Mustafi to Koscielny.
As the half went on, Watford actually looked more likely to get a third than the Gunners did to climb back into the match. Indeed, Cech had to come up with a save from Daryl Janmaat’s shot to keep the gap at two goals.
Overall, the Hornets had nine shots, six on target, in the first half, while Arsenal had none on target and only three total.
Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger, serving the second of his four-match ban in the stands, seemed to acknowledge his team’s ineffectiveness. Contrary to his norm, Wenger introduced Theo Walcott for Olivier Giroud at halftime, having already used one substitution to replace the injured Ramsey.
Walcott’s quickness did make a difference. He had two looks at goal in his first six minutes of action and forced Watford goalkeeper Heurelho Gomes into a decent save.
In the 58th minute, Arsenal’s pressure finally had an impact. Alexis Sanchez got past Watford left back Miguel Britos and found Alex Iwobi at the far post. Iwobi caressed the ball back across goal and in to halve the deficit.
The Gunners went on to dominate possession and opportunities. Watford were content to break up play, so Wenger and his pitchside colleagues Steve Bould and Neil Banfield discarded all caution. Coquelin came off to be replaced by Lucas Perez.
That left a central midfield of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Iwobi, neither with a long record of patrolling that area.
Perez joined the forward line and contributed to Arsenal’s intensifying efforts to breach Watford’s defense. The Spaniard’s shot off the bar late in normal time was as close as the Gunners came to equalizing.
Their 17 shots in the second half--but just three that tested Gomes after Iwobi’s goal—did not produce another comeback.
Things to ponder
Here are a few observations from this disappointing showing:
- The substitutes did make Arsenal more dynamic. Oxlade-Chamberlain, Walcott, and Lucas added quickness and intent to a heretofore plodding approach.
- The pairing of Coquelin and Ramsey never got a grip on this encounter. They struggled in the packed midfield and offered little in transition to attack.
- Indeed, questions will intensify about Arsenal’s midfield options. Ramsey’s exit after 20 minutes and the ongoing absences of Granit Xhaka and Mohammed Elneny leave the terrain to Coquelin and Oxlade-Chamberlain. The latter did not look entirely comfortable after a second-half tackle.
- Wenger faces another difficult decision in the forward areas. Although Giroud enjoyed very little service, he was largely ineffective when he did come near the ball. Will he retain his starting slot at the expense of the speedier Walcott, Perez, and Danny Welbeck?
- What started as a hopeful week now looks ominous. Chelsea could not hold its lead against Liverpool, meaning a Gunners’ win would have brought them within six points of the league leaders. With a Stamford Bridge date on Saturday, the gap could have been just three. But Arsenal now face a nine-point disadvantage, and it’s hard to see Chelsea giving up that much ground.