As the Premier League finally came forward for its final curtain call, there was a sense of optimism around the Emirates Stadium. Following a disappointing 1-0 loss away to Aston Villa, Arsenal were hoping that there would be a renewed sense of vigour that had only been aided by the club’s new kit launch, with the club hoping for a case of new kit, new team, rather than new kit, same problems.
Mikel Arteta made five changes to the lineup that lost to Aston Villa, with Cédric Soares, Sead Kolašinac, Lucas Torreira, Bukayo Saka and Eddie Nketiah all dropping to the bench in favour of Ainsley Maitland-Niles, Kieran Tierney, Granit Xhaka, Joe Willock and Nicolas Pépé respectively.
Mikel Arteta may have skilfully dodged a few questions in his pre-match interview and press conferences regarding Arsenal’s old adversary Troy Deeney, who famously questioned Arsenal’s “lack of cojones” when it really mattered, which led to Watford’s 2-1 over Arsenal in 2017, but there was no doubt that Arsenal would relish the chance to pile on the misery for Deeney and co.
With that in mind, things couldn’t have gone better for Arsenal in the opening few minutes after Alexandre Lacazette was fouled in the penalty area by defender Craig Dawson, which led to an agonisingly long VAR check.
The rather unnecessarily long check ruled that a penalty should be given (much to referee Mike Dean’s surprise and chagrin), which was promptly dispatched by the Golden Boot chasing Arsenal captain, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.
Despite Arsenal’s lead, it seems the same problems that have dogged the Gunners’ rather hapless campaign all season began to show again with Watford testing the Arsenal defence over and over again, none more than Ismaïla Sarr who danced his way through a siege of Arsenal defenders only to just fail to get the final ball right.
Somewhat against the run of play, Arsenal tore up the field and Nicolas Pépé’s cross reached Aubameyang, who saw the angle wasn’t open before begrudgingly playing the ball back for Kieran Tierney, who’s somewhat tame effort still found its way in the back of the net, to double Arsenal’s lead.
Tierney’s somewhat muted celebrations may have been a sign of the team’s overall performance all season, not good enough and that same sentiment seemed to be echoed by Mikel Arteta who, during the regulated drink’s break, was seen to be screaming this players. Arteta seemed to identify what everyone had suspected, that despite being 2-0 up, the performance was not up to scratch.
Nine minutes later, Arsenal grabbed a third. Terrible defending from Watford allowed Aubameyang to trap Tierney’s long throw before scoring with an acrobatic overhead kick. Arsenal were firmly in control by this point.
But as has been the case with Arsenal all season, the prophecy of Arsenal’s defence being a collective human hand grenade with a propensity for pulling its own pin, was once again fulfilled. The insistence on playing out from the back that famously caused the Gunners to come unstuck against Watford earlier in the season was once again prevalent here as Rob Holding’s misplaced pass gifted possession back to the away side who broke into the penalty area, only for the covering David Luiz to bring down former Gunner Danny Welbeck for the game’s second penalty.
Its with a drop of poetic irony that the aforementioned Deeney, who missed his last penalty against Arsenal, mimicked Aubameyang’s spot-kick and gave Watford an avenue back into the game.
While fans on social media were quick to lambast David Luiz for giving away his fifth penalty of the league season, its unfair to lay the blame entirely at the Brazilian defender’s feet, as Holding’s ball out had not done the defence any favours at all.
The second half signalled what Arsenal had always been fearing. A team willing to die on the field to avoid relegation and with a goal scored just before half-time was always going to come out all guns blazing and that’s precisely what Watford did and the visitors were duly rewarded.
After a series of saves from the impressive Emiliano Martínez, Watford’s doggedness was rewarded. Sarr pulling away from Arsenal’s defenders to square the ball for Welbeck to score against his former club, was exactly what the doctor had ordered for Watford.
Questions, once again, were to be asked of Arsenal’s hapless defensive pairing of Holding and David Luiz. David Luiz failed to track Welbeck’s run and Holding did little to keep tabs on his former teammate either.
With thirty minutes or so left on the clock, Arsenal were hungry for a fourth, however, the lack of creativity on the field, once again exacerbated by the continued exile of Mesut Özil, didn’t help Arsenal’s fortunes. However, Eddie Nketiah, on for Alexandre Lacazette, managed to force an error in midfield and was through on goal, baring down on Ben Foster. Nketiah got as close as he could before inevitably squaring it for Aubameyang, who was only a goal behind Leicester City’s Jamie Vardy. But the youngster’s pass wasn’t good enough and it was all Aubameyang could do to force an impressive save from Foster. Time was running out for the Gabon forward to grab the Golden Boot from Vardy’s hands.
At the other end, the old problems persisted as Welbeck found himself unmarked in the box again and saw his backheeled effort acrobatically kept out by Martínez.
Arsenal were glad to see the final whistle, but it was an unfortunate day for Watford. Results elsewhere meant that Watford were not in control of their own destiny anyway, but it served a bitter blow to Arsenal’s training ground neighbours that they were unable to come away with a point or possibly more.
For Arsenal, who head into Saturday’s FA Cup final against Chelsea, it was exactly the kind of pre-final jitters that they could do without.
Hapless defending, an astonishing lack of creativity, a questionable over reliance on tactics ill-suited to those playing them and distinct look of fatigue befell yet another poor performance from Arteta’s side.
Its not the first time that Arsenal have won a match in the Premier League this season looking much the worse side, however, its probably a good thing to get a poor performance out of the way before the aforementioned cup final, but Arsenal will want to make sure that the pre-final jitters are out fo the way as another former goalscoring adversary in Olivier Giroud will be licking his lips with glee at the thought of coming up against David Luiz who seemed on another planet on Sunday.
With the transfer window now opened and Arsenal’s budgetary fate still not fully decided in the world’s first post-COVID-19 transfer window, Arsenal fans will be watching Saturday’s final with bated breath, as Chelsea once again stand in the way of Arsenal’s European dreams, the question is, do Arsenal have it in them to payback their bitter rivals for the scoreline in Baku last season in the Europa League final?
Arsenal’s attention turns to the final now and Arteta will be hoping for a significantly better showing in terms of performance, but in terms of the potential outcome, the alternatives were considerably worse.
26.) Emiliano Martínez
15.) Ainsley Maitland-Niles
16.) Rob Holding
23.) David Luiz
3.) Kieran Tierney
8.) Dani Ceballos (Torreira 72’)
34.) Granit Xhaka
28.) Joe Willock (Kolašinac 57’)
19.) Nicolas Pépé (Nelson 72’)
14.) Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (c)
9.) Alexandre Lacazette (Nketiah 57’)
33.) Matt Macey
5.) Sokratis Papastathopoulos
11.) Lucas Torreira
17.) Cédric Soares
24.) Reiss Nelson
30.) Eddie Nketiah
31.) Sead Kolašinac
57.) Matthew Smith
77.) Bukayo Saka
26.) Ben Foster
21.) Kiko Femenía (Mariappa 45+2’)
27.) Christian Kabasele
4.) Craig Dawson
11.) Adam Masina
19.) Will Hughes (Chalobah 81’)
16.) Abdoulaye Doucouré (Cleverley 81’)
23.) Ismaïla Sarr
37.) Roberto Pereyra (João Pedro 88’)
10.) Danny Welbeck
9.) Troy Deeney (c)
1.) Heurelho da Silva Gomes
6.) Adrian Mariappa
8.) Tom Cleverley
14.) Nathaniel Chalobah
15.) Craig Cathcart
17.) João Pedro
18.) Andre Gray
20.) Domingos Quina
33.) Ignacio Pussetto