Arsenal’s recent approach to games and poor in-game adjustments finally came home to roost against Watford in Saturday night’s late kick-off.
It was a long time coming.
In the aftermath of Saturday’s defeat at Watford, there was much discourse about a lack of effort, desire, and commitment on the day, and understandably so. It was easier to vent your spleen about that than try to unpick the underlying reasons for a result that’s been long overdue.
At least three players looked to be going through the motions in the passage of play leading to what most observers had felt was an inevitable Watford winner, and they have all rightly copped individual flak for this.
Granit Xhaka picking his nose while Watford score the winner. pic.twitter.com/KFVTZXHvLk
— Utsav Ojha (@_thatUtsavOjha) October 17, 2017
That withstanding, the rest of their teammates had all looked off the pace yet again and hadn’t done enough to put the game to bed in the first 70 minutes before things started to go wrong.
This wasn’t an isolated incident and has been a theme of the past four matches since the encouraging draw at Stamford Bridge. It’s safe to say that, despite winning four in a row, Arsenal hadn’t been playing well.
The winning run can be put down to Arsenal doing just enough while playing against bad teams with little interest in winning the game – Doncaster, West Brom, BATE Borisov and Brighton – while barely getting out of second gear themselves.
For the first 63 minutes on Saturday, Watford were another bad team with little interest in winning a game. An Arsenal team who hadn’t even got into second gear had taken the lead after Per Mertesacker’s header from a corner, whilst at no point looking vulnerable.
However, after witnessing Arsenal’s inert performance and only being a goal down, Watford sensed that they may be able to get something from the game if they decided to have a go.
Having kicked off matching Arsenal man-for-man with a back three, Marco Silva took stock of the situation shortly after the hour mark and elected to switch to a back four.
Arsenal could have nipped Watford’s building momentum in the bud had Mesut Ozil converted a very presentable chance to make it 0-2 on the break, but they didn’t. Had that happened, we’d likely be sat here having a lukewarm discourse about another ugly and unremarkable win. But it didn’t and we’re now forced to confront the reality of how deep the on-pitch problems run at Arsenal and how things haven’t been right for five games.
While the manner of Troy Deeney’s performatively smug post-match interviews after Watford’s last two wins against Arsenal may have gotten under people’s nerves, he was totally right.
Teams have no need to fear an Arsenal team playing with no urgency, confidence, or cutting edge in front of goal. Had Watford actively tried from the first minute rather than the 63rd, they could have won by a larger margin. Less risk-averse managers than Tony Pulis and Chris Hughton will also instruct their players to have a go in light of Watford’s victory.
While the defence have borne the brunt of criticism for how Arsenal folded, their play was affected by what was going on ahead of them.
After a fine few games, Granit Xhaka and Mohamed Elneny played a fairly risk-averse, one-paced game, with less expansive passing or making of angles. They weren’t exactly helped by limited movement and support from Alex Iwobi and Alexandre Lacazette, with Danny Welbeck often offering the only option. It wasn’t good enough and hasn’t been for a while. A bottleneck formed and Arsenal kept inviting pressure, until the inevitable happened. We’ve all seen this film before.
The pre-planned decision to bring Olivier Giroud on for a fading Lacazette, who had received a couple of kicks and made a couple of very poor decisions on the counter was not the correct one, in isolation for a match finely perched at 0-1. Watford were growing into it and Arsenal increasingly looking to play on the counter. Either bring Giroud on alongside a runner, like Theo Walcott, or just don’t bother.
Giroud is poor when he's alone and isolated up front.
However when he is played along side someone who makes runs off him, he's world class. pic.twitter.com/XccyRz5GIB
— Lets Talk Arsenal (@ltarsenal) October 17, 2017
The decision to replace the injured Laurent Koscielny with Rob Holding rather than Jack Wilshere was also criticised given Watford themselves only had four defenders on the pitch rather than five. But the counter-point to this was perhaps Arsene Wenger saw how devoid of confidence his players were and felt it would be better to take a draw than chase an increasingly improbable winner. But that didn’t work, either.
This is an Arsenal side in a state of flux, drastically searching for some sort of identity. The good players are underperforming and it’s not a healthy environment for the young ones to develop in. Established internationals and senior figures look so lost in the set-up that buying new recruits and dropping them into this malaise won’t necessarily help.
It wouldn’t be a stretch to say a couple of players have mentally checked out and are metaphorically running the ball down to the corner flag on their Arsenal careers. It seems they’re going through the motions and counting down the days til it’s over.
On one hand, who can blame them? But on the other, it’s their fault the club is in this predicament in the first place and they’re the only ones who can dig themselves out of it.