Watford vs. Arsenal: Gunners show mental weakness in 2-1 loss

The Gunners conceded two late goals in Saturday’s 2-1 loss at Vicarage Road to slip to 6th place in the Premier League, 9 points behind Manchester City. The turning point of the game was the penalty awarded to the Hornets in the 71st minute. Bellerin and Richarlison were both chasing a ball rolling toward the by-line when the Watford forward fell to the ground. TV replays showed there was no shove, no shirt-pulling and no leg tangle, just minimal contact between two players running side by side. To put it bluntly, it was clearly a dive from Richarlison. Deeney converted the spot kick to level the game.

Watford vs. Arsenal

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

Until that penalty, Arsenal had the game under control, limiting the Hornets to just one half-chance in the 19th. It became a completely different story after the equalizer as all the scoring opportunities in the last 20 minutes were for the hosts. If you’re a good team, you find a way to salvage a point despite that officiating mistake. But the Gunners lacked the mental strength to react and spent the closing minutes inside their own half, waiting for the final blow.

Tactically, the hosts mirrored Arsenal’s 3-4-3 formation. The Hornets switched to a back four in the second half when Carrillo and Deeney replaced Mariappa and Gray in the 62nd. Both teams had 8 chances each. What really made the difference was Watford’s desire. The Hornets won 64% of their tackles and made 19 interceptions compared to 43% of tackles won and 10 interceptions for Arsenal, according to Squawka.

Saturday’s game also raised questions about injury management at the club. The staff wisely let Ramsey and Sanchez recover from international duty and did not include them in the squad. However, Welbeck and Koscielny both started the game despite returning from injury. It proved a risky gamble as Welbeck picked up a hamstring injury in the 59th while Koscielny had a calf problem in the 85th. Ozil also made his return from injury but was eased back into the team by coming off the bench to replace Welbeck in the 61st. Why such a difference of treatment? In hindsight, Walcott or Giroud could have started in the front three alongside Iwobi and Lacazette. And Holding could have played alongside Mertesacker and Monreal in the back three.

A foretaste of life without Ozil and Sanchez

In a news conference before the game, Wenger mentioned that the club could sell Sanchez and Ozil in January. The first 60 minutes gave us a foretaste of how life without those stars could look like. The Gunners had no clear-cut chances from open play because of a lack of creativity and penetration. They only had 2 successful dribbles compared to 6 for Watford, according to whoscored.com. Arsenal also wasted some good situations with inaccurate final balls. Bellerin made a cross that was too high for Lacazette in the 12th. A minute later, Kolasinac sent the ball behind Welbeck. Then Iwobi overhit crosses for Lacazette in the 35th and for Welbeck in the 41st.

Despite all the hype surrounding Iwobi, the Nigeria international doesn’t read the game as well as Ozil yet. No one doubts Iwobi’s potential but it’s all about translating it into end product. Iwobi only made 1 key pass compared to 3 for Welbeck and 2 for Ozil. At 21, Iwobi still has time to improve. He especially needs to work on his composure. Iwobi lacked lucidity twice in the final third on Saturday. He missed a five-yard pass to Bellerin in the 33rd and opted for a tame curling shot instead of feeding Lacazette in the 36th.

From a financial perspective, it would make sense to sell Sanchez and Ozil in January. However, the consequences on the pitch could be devastating in terms of assists and goals. If the plan is to replace Ozil with Iwobi for assists and Sanchez with Welbeck for goals, then fans should expect a significant drop in end product. Welbeck worked his socks off, setting up Xhaka for a long-range strike that Gomes parried in the 43rd and picking out Bellerin who missed the target a few seconds later.

Lacazette’s poor game

When Ozil replaced Welbeck in the 61st, anybody could see the difference in the final third. Ozil played a perfectly weighted pass to Iwobi, whose angled effort was tipped around the far post by Gomes in the 63rd. Iwobi returned the favor in the 70th, slipping a through ball to Ozil, who was denied by Gomes. If he had scored, Ozil would have been hailed a hero for doubling the lead. Unfortunately, Ozil missed that chance and mentally disappeared from the game. That’s not an issue when the Gunners dominate ball possession. But when they have to fight for the ball and are put on the back foot, then Ozil becomes a liability. Arsenal definitely missed Welbeck’s work-rate after the equalizer.

Lacazette still hasn’t scored away from home yet and produced his worst performance in an Arsenal shirt on Saturday. The France international had 0 shot, made 0 key pass and had a passing accuracy as low as 60% compared to 90% for Welbeck and 87.7% for Iwobi. The lack of understanding between Lacazette and Iwobi didn’t help obviously. It was at least the second game in which Iwobi chose personal glory instead of feeding Lacazette, who was in a better position to score. I just hope this poor game won’t affect Lacazette’s confidence. Giroud replaced Lacazette in the 67th and proved inefficient in retaining the ball, leading the team with 5 turnovers and winning only 2 of 5 aerial duels.

There was a small surprise in the team selection with Mertesacker making his first Premier League start in more than a year. Since Mustafi picked up a hamstring injury on international duty, Wenger only had the choice between Holding and Mertesacker for the third centerback playing alongside Koscielny and Monreal. The manager gave the nod to the more experienced Mertesacker, who had a good game.

Some more gruyere cheese

The German centerback opened the scoring in the 39th by heading home a corner from Xhaka. Despite his lack of pace, Mertesacker proved quite solid at the back by winning 1 of 1 tackle and 12 of 14 aerial duels and making 2 interceptions and 3 blocks, according to Squawka. In fact, Mertesacker outperformed Koscielny (0 of 3 tackles won, 7 of 13 aerial duels won, 2 interceptions, 1 block) and Monreal (2 of 7 tackles won, 0 of 5 headers won, 1 interception, 1 block). Koscielny lacked sharpness in his return from injury while Monreal seemed a bit jaded after playing for Spain during the international break.

On the wings, Bellerin had a decent game despite failing to stop Doucoure’s cross for Pereyra, who headed wide in the 19th. I thought Kolasinac could have done more on the opposite flank. The former Schalke 04 player created no chance and lost the only tackle he made.

If the wingbacks and the centerbacks did OK defensively, how come Arsenal conceded two goals? You have to look at the midfield to find the answer. Gruyere cheese has been a recurrent theme since the start of the season. As long as the Gunners don’t sign a world-class ballwinner, there’s no way they will ever be able to contend.

Elneny teamed up with Xhaka in midfield. The duo matched Cleverley and Doucoure in the first half before fading in the second half. Xhaka and Elneny played with their national teams during the international break. In hindsight, maybe it would have been better to start Coquelin and Wilshere in midfield. Xhaka and Elneny combined to create 1 chance, win 3 of 5 tackles and make 1 interception and 1 block while Cleverley and Doucoure created 4 chances, won 5 of 7 tackles and made 3 interceptions and 2 blocks, according to Squawka.

Can’t smell the danger

As the holding midfielder, Xhaka had a poor game. His passing accuracy dipped to 76% on Saturday while it was around 90% last season. Xhaka has no competition inside the squad. Does that explain his increasing sloppiness this season? A bigger concern is Xhaka’s lack of defensive awareness: he simply can’t smell the danger.

In the 83rd, Deeney cut the ball back for Capoue, whose effort deflected off Mertesacker’s chest to hit the post. As you can see in the screen capture below, there was no Gunner near Capoue in a 10-meter radius. Both Xhaka and Elneny sat too deep and did not spot Capoue’s presence on the edge of the box.

Watford vs. Arsenal M83ed

Xhaka and Elneny leave Capoue unmarked. (Photo credit: BT Sport)

That play should have acted as a warning for Xhaka. But the Switzerland international made the same mistake in stoppage time. A long-range strike from Holebas led to a goalmouth scramble in which Watford won the second ball twice. Mertesacker blocked Deeney’s shot before Cleverley pounced on the rebound to slam the ball into the back of the net. Elneny was pulled out of position because he made up for Ozil’s laziness and tried to block Holebas’ effort. Therefore only Xhaka was available to track Cleverley’s movement inside the Arsenal box. As you can see in the screen capture below, there was no Gunner near Cleverley in a 5-meter radius.

Watford vs. Arsenal M92ed

Xhaka fails to mark Cleverley. (Photo credit: BT Sport)

Among the top teams, the Gunners are the only ones still winless on the road. They have already suffered 3 defeats from 8 Premier League games and are on pace to finish the season with 14 defeats, which would be a record under Wenger. They next play Red Star Belgrade on Thursday before travelling to Goodison Park on Sunday. The Europa League game is meaningless because the Gunners top their group and can afford to drop points. By contrast, a second straight loss in the Premier League could trigger a crisis. Remember all the negativity around the club after they lost to Stoke and Liverpool in August.

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