Watford vs. Arsenal: Sanchez fires Gunners to 1st win of season

The Gunners relied on a great performance from Sanchez on Saturday to earn their first win of the season. The Chile forward scored a goal and was involved in two others as Arsenal defeated Watford 3-1 in the Premier League.

Watford vs. Arsenal

Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com

The Hornets tried to stuff the midfield with a 3-5-2 system similar to the one used by Italy in the Euro 2016. However, the Gunners bypassed the Watford midfield by attacking down the flanks and sending long balls over the top. After reaching half-time with a 3-0 lead, Arsenal dropped in intensity and allowed Watford to enjoy more possession in the second half. The Hornets were also able to create more chances by switching to a 4-4-2 formation in the 52nd minute.

Wenger made just one change to the side that drew with Leicester the previous weekend with Ozil replacing Coquelin in the starting lineup. That move had two major consequences. First, the Gunners played Ozil as a second striker behind Sanchez whereas they used Cazorla as a playmaker against Leicester. And second, they played with no natural ballwinner since Cazorla dropped back to take Coquelin’s spot next to Xhaka.

The manager clearly opted for an attack-minded midfield with two pace-setters or deep-lying playmakers (Xhaka and Cazorla) and a No. 10 (Ozil). That pyramid midfield is perfectly tailored for Ozil as it echoes the system used by Germany with Kroos, Schweinsteiger and Ozil, or the one used a few years ago by Mourinho’s Real Madrid with Xabi Alonso, Khedira and Ozil. It’s definitely more offensive than Zidane’s Real Madrid which is using an inverted pyramid midfield with a ballwinner, Casemiro, covering Kroos and Modric.

Ozil as a ‘nine and a half’

That kind of midfield with Ozil at the top of the pyramid and Xhaka and Cazorla at the bottom could help Arsenal beat the weak sides in the Premier League. Last season, the Gunners performed well against the top teams but dropped too many points against the weak ones. When Cazorla was injured, Arsenal only had Ramsey, Flamini, Elneny and Coquelin as back-up options and none of them are deep-lying playmakers. Ozil too often dropped back to pull the strings in midfield because Arsenal struggled to build play from the back without Cazorla.

Signing Xhaka this summer means that the Gunners no longer depend on Cazorla as the only pace-setter. It also means that Ozil can focus on the final third instead of engineering the build-up play. Ozil’s role as a ‘nine and a half’ explains why he combined a lot with Sanchez against Watford. In the eighth minute, the Germany playmaker made a cross for Sanchez, who was fouled inside the area by Amrabat. Cazorla converted the subsequent penalty to open the scoring. Sanchez then played a one-two with Ozil in the 36th but had his angled effort stopped by Gomes’ foot.

The role of ‘nine and a half’ implies that Ozil still makes assists but it also means that he is more often in a position to score than a traditional playmaker. Ozil took a pass from Sanchez in the 38th but was denied by Gomes. On the stroke of half-time, Ozil made a deep run to connect with a cross from Sanchez and headed home for a 3-0 lead.

Walcott’s tactical role

Sanchez was able to shine on Saturday because of Watford’s tactical mess in the first half but also because he got better service from his teammates. He made it 2-0 by converting Walcott’s teasing cross in the 40th. Sanchez made poor contact with the ball but somehow it still bounced over the line despite Prodl’s late clearance. The goal was awarded following use of the goal-line technology. Sanchez could have rounded off the scoring in the 88th but Gomes saved his high shot. The Chile forward was a bit greedy on that play as he had two good passing options with Walcott to his left and Cazorla to his right.

Walcott had a good game with an assist and 2 of 3 shots on target. He met a cross from Cazorla in the 24th but Gomes parried the angled effort from the England international. Walcott then chased a long ball from Xhaka in the 45th for a half-volley that Gomes tipped away. His only poor effort was a lob attempt over the bar in the 62nd. Walcott also made a teasing cross in the 49th but neither Sanchez nor Oxlade-Chamberlain could get on the end of it. You barely notice Walcott in Arsenal’s passing game but he plays an important role in stretching the defense by hugging the touchline and making smart runs.

The Ox is technically more gifted than Walcott, but struggled to have an impact in the final third against the Hornets. He must find a way to better read the game and make smarter runs otherwise he’ll end up on the bench when Iwobi and Ramsey are back in the squad.

Xhaka’s passing range

In midfield, Xhaka and Cazorla were the cornerstone of Arsenal’s passing game with 71 and 65 passes respectively, compared to just 37 for Ozil. Xhaka’s passing range proved an interesting weapon to bypass the Watford defense with 6 of his 9 long balls finding the target, according to whoscored.com. Cazorla also had 2 accurate long balls out of 3. When you have so many players who can deliver the final ball, it becomes very difficult for the other team to anticipate where chances will be created. Xhaka, Cazorla, Ozil, Walcott, Sanchez, Bellerin and the Ox finished the game with one key pass each.

Xhaka and Cazorla have obviously struck a good understanding in midfield. The key question is whether they will provide enough protection to the back four against the good teams. Xhaka won 2 of 4 tackles and Cazorla 2 of 3, according to the club’s official website. But if you check Squawka’s stats, their defensive performance was not that good with 2 of 7 tackles won by Xhaka and 2 of 4 by Cazorla.

Of course, Xhaka and Cazorla have plenty of time to improve their partnership. But they don’t seem to smell danger like Coquelin or a natural ballwinner. Watford’s consolation goal in the 57th came from two lucky bounces and some poor defensive work from the Ox, who failed to track Janmaat. Koscielny headed away Janmaat’s cross but his clearance bounced off Cazorla and into the path of Capoue. Koscielny was unlucky on that play as he blocked Capoue’s 17-yard shot and the ball ricocheted off Bellerin’s leg. Pereyra beat Xhaka to the loose ball and fired past Cech to cut the deficit to 3-1.

Caught ball-watching

The Hornets could have added a second goal in the 69th when Cech pushed away Holebas’ 25-yard strike. Ighalo beat Bellerin to the rebound but Cech saved the angled strike from the Watford forward. On that play, Xhaka and Cazorla were both inside the area but too far from Holebas to make a block. Would Coquelin have kept an eye on the edge of the box and blocked Holebas’ effort?

At the back, I thought Bellerin had a poor game. The Spaniard made a decent offensive contribution by setting up the Ox for a lob attempt in the 67th and by turning Kaboul inside out in the 54th for a teasing cross that Sanchez couldn’t meet. But he had a couple of turnovers in the first half because of sloppy passes and a few more in the second half because he dallied on the ball.

Defensively, there were quite a few holes in Bellerin’s game. He was caught ball-watching when Ighalo sneaked behind him in the 69th. Then Bellerin’s awkward header from a throw-in gifted Watford a scoring chance in the 72nd with an overhead kick from Ighalo. He also lost an aerial duel to Success, who forced Cech into a save in the 78th. Hopefully, it’s just one poor game and Bellerin will perform again at his level from last season.

Holding’s a fast learner

Monreal had a hard time on the left flank with Amrabat. The Spaniard only won 40% of his duels according to the club’s official website, the weakest percentage among all the defenders. Amrabat outmuscled Monreal in the 25th to make a cross that Koscielny diverted goalward. It took a reflex save from Cech to prevent Watford from equalizing. Then Kabasele beat Monreal to the ball to head a corner wide in the 34th. The international break is coming at the right time to help Monreal get 100 percent fit and tidy up his game.

The main positive from Saturday’s game was Holding’s performance. His passing accuracy reached 90.9%, much better than his 73.6% against Leicester and 74.1% against Liverpool. Maybe the biggest surprise was that 4 of his 7 long balls found the target while Koscielny only had 1 accurate long ball out of 5. Holding is definitely learning fast. He seems a fine option against the weak teams but I still think he’s not ready yet to play against the big teams. Holding showed his naivety twice. First, by letting Ighalo dribble past him in the 12th. And second, by making a sloppy pass to Koscielny that the Hornets intercepted in the 36th.

Despite the victory, the Gunners are still five points behind Chelsea and the two Manchesters in the standings. I don’t think that they are serious contenders this season, even with late additions like Mustafi and Perez, but keeping the gap with the leaders below 6 points is a necessity to protect the team’s morale. Arsenal should have an opportunity to make up ground after the international break with games against Southampton and Hull.