Monday, April 4, 2016

Arsenal 4 Watford 0

Revenge was sweet. Arsenal put four past a former Tottenham keeper, Heurelho Gomes, who said "When you see Arsenal playing against big teams, they look like a small team" after his side knocked out Arsene Wenger's men out of the FA Cup competition 3 weeks ago. The north London side brushed aside Watford with a convincing performance. Nyom's blatant foul on Özil, which should have seen him sent off, epitomised Watford's sheer frustration during the game.

Arsene Wenger named the same starting XI after his side's impressive 2-0 victory at Goodison Park 2 weeks ago. Petr Cech made a return from injury only to make the bench. It would have been cruel to David Ospina, who hadn't put his foot wrong since the Czech international's injury.

Stats indicated our indifferent starts at home in recent games, but in this game we didn't wait for long to see our team open the scoring. Iwobi's inch-perfect curling cross met Alexis' header, which drew a fine save from Gomes, but the Chile international was quick to pounce on the rebound and poked it into the top corner. It took the Gunners no more than 4 minutes from kick-off. They kept moving the ball around, dominating in possession, but Watford was slowly growing into the game. A one-goal lead is never enough to settle the nerves even when we are on top. A second goal finally arrived in the 38th minute in the form of Alex Iwobi's second goal in as many games.

This season we tend to shut up shop when we are 2-0 up, invite pressure and hold on the lead. As a result, we made struggling teams, such as Newcastle and even Aston Villa, look good. We lacked ruthlessness this season. However, this game was different. Arsenal came out with the same attacking intent after the break and was soon rewarded through Bellerin's fortuitous goal. We have been saying exactly what the 20-year-old Spaniard said about his goal after the match: You have to try, otherwise you won't score. Theo Walcott made it 4-0 with his close-range shot after some good work from a fellow substitute Joel Campbell. Who knows it may all come down to goal difference at the end of the season.

After the game, many questioned why Arsenal couldn't beat this side 3 weeks ago. In fact, we should have been 2-0 up in the first half on that day, but we were not clinical enough in front of goal. Today, we produced 12 shots on target from 19 goal attempts, in comparison with 4 shots on target from 20 attempts in the FA Cup quarter-final. We were more efficient in front of goal in this game.

Another factor is personnel. Since the defeat, Arsene Wenger seemed to have found better partnerships throughout the team: Welbeck and Iwobi up front with pace and mobility, Coquelin and Elneny in the midfield with the right attack-defence balance to protect the back four, and the pacey central defensive pair of Koscielny and Gabriel, who can play a high line to complement a high pressing game.

In the Cup game against Watford, Wenger recognised the lack of penetration and tried to bring on the triple substitutions of Welbeck, Walcott and Iwobi before we went 2-0 down. The effect of changes was obvious with Welbeck reducing the deficit but he could not convert the chance to earn a replay. With Watford defence compact and organised, full-backs' involvement in attack was also essential to stretch their defence. Bellerin and Monreal did this job well today.

Deployed on the right wing, it seemed to have drawn the best out of Alexis, too. He was successful on the left wing last season, stating that it is his best position because he can cut inside with his preferred right foot. This season, however, he tended to dribble into the center and try to beat every player until he got dispossessed. He has more opportunities to make runs without the ball and crosses on the right wing.

Pundits and journalists have sniffed at Arsenal's back-to-back victory, regarding it as an "annual late run after the pressure is off", but is the pressure really off? The win at Goodison Park came when we had our back against the wall and the situation was the same prior to this game. This "late run" is attributed to finding the right formula rather than mental elements. Wenger has been keeping the faith in the same starting XI for the last 3 games. Before the Barcelona game Welbeck had to be eased into games after a long lay-off, while Iwobi's emergence was a revelation even to Wenger. The Coquelin-Elneny partnership has flourished as both equally share offensive/defensive responsibilities. Although Santi's delayed return is bad news for us, Elneny's rise softens the blow.

If mental factors have anything to do with the late surge, it's the team's focus. As Mesut Özil pointed out, the team seemed to have gone into some of the games, thinking just turning up was enough to earn points. In the run-in, they will have enough time to prepare themselves for the next game, playing only one game a week, except for the rescheduled match against West Brom. Hopefully, the boys will keep the same focus they showed in this game till the end of the season.

Players ratings

Ospina: 7
With Watford registering only 2 shots on target, he had little to do, but when he was called upon, he produced a fine save to keep a clean sheet.

Bellerin: 8

He didn't go forward often enough for our liking in the first half, but got more involved in attack as the game went on. Scored his third goal in an Arsenal shirt with his weaker left foot.

Gabriel: 7

Made 6 interceptions and 7 clearances. Largely untroubled, but his slip nearly gave us a heart attack. Fortunately, Bellerin came to a rescue.

Koscielny: 7

Made 6 interceptions and 6 clearances. Kept Ighalo quiet. So much so, the Nigeria international was taken off at half time. He dithered after having won the ball and nearly lost possession under pressure from 2 Watford players. He needs to eradicate this bad habit. 

Monreal: 7
He was always available on the left flank. Made 2 tackles, 3 interceptions 5 clearances and 1 block. His heading clearance off the line helped a clean sheet.

Coquelin: 8

Made 4 tackles, 4 interceptions, and 1 clearance. He also initiated a slick move leading to Iwobi's goal by releasing Alexis up the right wing.

Elneny: 8
Put in a tireless shift in his 8th game, including AFCON qualifiers for Egypt, in the space of 4 weeks, constantly covering 12 km or more per game. His energy and work rate have made a big difference in recent weeks.  Made more passes (127) than any other players on the pitch with an impressive 96.1% accuracy, which meant he completed more passes (122) than any player in a Premier League game this season. He rarely loses  the ball. 

Alexis: 9
Had 4 shots, all of which were on target. Made 5 key passes. Scored Arsenal's first goal and set up the second. Replaced by Campbell in the 78th minute after he was seen holding his hamstring. Hope he is OK.'s Man of the Match with a 9 rating.

Özil: 7
4 goals and he didn't claim assists for any of them. However, he was still pulling the strings for Arsenal's attack. His perfectly-weighed long pass to Campbell led to Arsenal's fourth goal. Had 2 shots, 1 of which was on target, creating 3 chances for his team-mates. Made 111 passes with a 90.1 % passing success rate.

Iwobi: 9

Arsenal fans' and Barclays Man of the Match. Set up Alexis's goal and got on a scoresheet himself. Had 4 shots, 3 of which were on target, making 3 key passes. He is one of bright spots of a disappointing season. 

Welbeck: 7

Had 3 shots, 1 of which was on target. He should have done better when he had a chance to put a shot away in the box. Replaced by Giroud in the 63rd minutes. Wise decision as he does not seem to have completely recovered from the knee injury that kept him on the sidelines for 10 months.


Giroud: 6
Replaced Welbeck in the 63rd minutes. Had 1 shot, which was on target. 

Walcott: 7
Came on for Iwobi in the 68th minute. The lack of eagerness was clear on his face when he came on, in contrast to an enthusiastic reception from the home crowd for out-going Alex Iwobi. A low-key celebration of his goal also suggested that he might be on his way out.

Campbell: 7
Replaced Alexis in the 78th minute to play on the right wing. Set up Walcott's goal.

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