Watford – Arsenal: Early events reek chaos on a fiercely fought encounter (0-1)
A goalkeeping blunder, a Troy Deeney elbow and a whole host of system changes. All of this made for quite the matchup when Champions League hopefuls, Arsenal, were pitted against Europa League hopefuls, Watford. Both managers chopped and changed their team’s outlook, for better and for worse, but it was the visitors who held out in deserved fashion.
Tactical analysis and match report by Peter M.
Hot on the form books and still reeling from last week’s dramatic cup comeback over Wolverhampton Wanderers in the FA Cup semi finals, Javi Gracia trusted in himself enough to bring back an old, experimental shape – the 3-5-2 formation. In line with this, Roberto Pereyra, José Holebas, Adrian Mariappa and Heurelho Gomes all dropped out.
As for Unai Emery, this awkwardly placed match, wedged right in-between their Europa League quarter final tie with SSC Napoli, was still vitally important to their hopes of qualifying for the Champions League next season. His attempts to try and prioritize both were clear in his selected eleven as the spine of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Aaron Ramsey, Lucas Torreira and Laurent Koscielny held strong. Emery also made a change in system, reverting to a more familiar 4-2-3-1 setup.
Watford’s initial plan
Before things went topsy-turvy, Gracia had clearly prepared his side in a way that would go toe-to-toe with the opposition. Thanks to some excellent anticipation work in predicting this system change by Emery, Watford’s players were man-marking Arsenal and disrupting a lot of their buildup play right from the off.
Watford man-marking against Arsenal’s buildup.
The possession-based play also showed a lot of promise early on. There were a couple of well thought out passages that were comfortably evading Arsenal pressure, even at its highest. They were moving it well from side to side, making the visitors work to get it back. Although they made few inroads, it was still early days.
However, this all came tumbling down within the space of a couple of minutes when Aubameyang’s relentless harrying of the ball was enough to get in the way of Ben Foster’s attempted clearance, resulting in the ball pinging back the other way into the net. Then, almost straight after, Deeney casually, but sneakily, swung an elbow across Torreira’s face, which the referees picked up on and punished him for. A straight red for the striker; Watford were now already a goal down and a man down.
Gracia’s forced into changes
Gracia did not have the luxury of being able to maintain his initial setup because half of it was to do with getting close to each and every Arsenal player. Now with one fewer striker, playing a 4-4-1 system, Watford were forced much deeper. They simply did not have the numbers up front to cope with the ensuing overloads from Arsenal’s midfield.
The fortunate thing for them was that Emery’s side were not threatening much and it appeared to be a systemic issue. With Nacho Monreal at left-back and Shkodran Mustafi at right-back, you had two players who preferred to stay deeper. Whilst Monreal was not afraid to provide some attacking support, Mustafi did no such thing, meaning Arsenal’s attack funneled heavily down the left.
The aspect of the structure that made the fullbacks roles so damaging was that the wingers, Alex Iwobi and Henrikh Mkhitaryan, were cast very wide. As a result, there was practically nobody positioned inside, helping to connect the flanks to the center, and vice versa.
Arsenal’s 4-2-3-1 structure which lacks any halfspace If you divide the field in five vertical lanes, the halfspaces are the lanes that are not on the wing and not in the center. Because there is no touchline like on the wing, players have freedom to go everywhere. But this zone often is not as well-defended as the very center. This makes it a very valuable offensive zone to play in and a lot of chances are created by passes or dribbles from the halfspace. occupancy.
Subsequently, Arsenal found themselves circulating the ball from side to side without any signs of ball progression. The best Ramsey could do was trying to provide a link in-between Iwobi on the left and Aubameyang in the center. The issue then became the fact that he was so easy to mark since Arsenal were essentially fielding a 4-4-2 shape when the Welshman drifted wide of his central partner.
This meant that Craig Cathcart could get tight to Ramsey when he received the ball, without fear of the space being left behind him. And, because of the fact Ramsey could only receive in a way that meant his only option was straight back where it came from, Arsenal had little hope of progressing the ball through this method.
In addition to this, on the other side, Mkhitaryan was still an isolated figure on the flanks with no inside support, meaning he had nobody to make runs that would open up the possibility of switch into him. The right side thus became void.
The one positive sign for Arsenal was that they were beginning to expose Watford on the counter. The hosts seemed more than willing to commit one too many men forward at such an early stage, which, in the seventeenth minute, allowed Iwobi and Ramsey to overload Daryl Janmaat before Iwobi then had the space in which to cut it back for Aubameyang. The striker could only snatch at his near-post chance, though.
All this being said, it was a relatively unproductive half past the early incidences. Although, Watford would have surely felt like the side in the ascendency as Arsenal’s drab spells of possession continued to become more and more stale, helping to give further encouragement on the occasions when Watford recovered the ball in the midfield.
Mesut Özil’s introduction provides steadier control for Arsenal
Emery brought on the German for Torreira during the break, which saw Ramsey drop alongside Granit Xhaka in holding midfield. It was undoubtedly the right move as Arsenal’s play quickly became far more fluid and incisive. Not only was it a huge help to have a player who would willingly provide support to both flanks but it was also incredibly helpful to now have a deep midfielder better suited to pushing up and helping to overload certain attacking areas closer to the box.
The possession felt as though it had a greater purpose even if it was yet to manufacture a clear-cut opportunity. Unsurprisingly, Arsenal completed forty-one attacking third passes in the opening fifteen minutes of the second half, compared to the twenty-nine that came in the final fifteen minutes of the first half.
What did remain a consistent threat for Arsenal, however, was their counterattack and, equally, Aubameyang’s presence as a target to play off of. He had been a consistent target of escape balls out from the back already and it was not different here as Monreal’s powerful clearance towards him was met with a tidy lay-off for Iwobi to set him away. With Watford having pushed up both their fullbacks, there were just the two center-backs left, leaving them completely exposed to a sudden four-versus-two. Iwobi continued to drive towards the box before hanging a ball across to the far-post. Met on the volley by Mkhitaryan, his shot was stopped impressively by the foot of Foster.
Emery makes further alterations
Soon came another Arsenal change in the form of Mattéo Guendouzi for Konstantinos Mavropanos. This enforced the shift to a 3-4-3 formation. It quickly had its impact at both ends. Initially leaving the midfield stretched and exposed against a poor switch of play, Gray was almost through were it not for his poor control.
Soon after, Arsenal put it to good use as a more controlled passage of play saw the visitors exploit the increasingly-stretched Watford defensive unit. They overloaded the channels, opened the spaces into the flanks and eventually worked an opening for Mkhitaryan. The Armenian’s cross was drilled towards the near-post and was met by Aubameyang; however, he could not steer his effort on target.
One last throw of the dice
Not that Watford had not been going hell for leather before the final quarter of an hour but now really was the time to go all guns blazing. Gracia brought on Isaac Success for Kiko Femenía, seeing Watford move to a 4-3-2 shape.
At a roughly similar time, Emery went back on his system change by bringing on Ainsley Maitland-Niles and reverting to the 4-2-3-1 system.
Contrary to how Emery would have hoped it would play out, Watford soon created a golden opportunity for themselves. Combining brilliantly from out the back – pinning back and pulling apart Arsenal’s narrow 4-4-2 shape in the process – Janmaat drove it inside to Abdoulaye Doucouré before a headed exchange between Success and Gray put the latter through on goal. He rounded Bernd Leno only for Maitland-Niles to recover spectacularly by blocking off a potential open-goal.
Arsenal continued to threaten in transition, with Watford’s shape becoming ever weaker but no matter what they did, they could not seem to kill the game off. That being said, Watford had not truly threatened the Arsenal goal consistently enough, all truth being told. Before the final whistle went, there were even more chances for Aubameyang to grab his second but it was not meant to be and so the away side saw the game out to win 1-0.
Whilst things have looked up for Watford, they are beginning to do so for Emery’s Arsenal now too. Following an excellent first leg performance against Napoli, Arsenal have now also, and finally, secured their first away clean sheet of the Premier League season. Not a feat to be proud of in itself, but nonetheless it takes them closer to Champions League qualification.
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