I was greeting the Watford game with more trepidation than required, purely because of the ‘win-at-Bernebeu-lose-at-Bristol’ narrative that has been spun around Arsenal, not without evidence or precedence. The players and manager aren’t even pretending to be politically correct now. In the post-match comments after the Sweeping of Manchester (I’m trying to think of a moniker for that one), Walcott and Wenger both admitted that a) the increased commitment, passion, and pressing was a function of the opposition, and b) it was also a function of Arsenal having had the chair pulled from beneath them by Olympiakos the previous Tuesday. It basically amounted to an open warning: Arsenal can go complacent in any match, and if they learn that going complacent can cost you points against any team, they are likely to forget the lesson immediately. A football team with the silkiness of the finest Kanchivaram and the memory capacity of a lowly gnat.
I know this is a horrible way to begin writing about a match we handled and won with professional ease, apologies. It’s just that, as long as this caveat of complacence accompanies Arsenal and their performances, it’s difficult to be completely confident about their ability to challenge for the league.
Right, on to the game then. There was certainly no complacency in team selection, with the same eleven that played in the Red Devil Purge on the field for this one. Alexis’s groin successfully withstood Wenger’s intense scrutiny and he started on the left, combining well with Ozil and Cazorla in spurts. It was a quiet half overall though. Watford have been the shutout kings at home so far, with Vicarage Road seeing only two goals scored in the games played there, and the Hornets set up with two disciplined, high-pressing banks of four. They were sporadically dangerous going forward, mostly owing to the surprisingly jittery Koscielny and their captain Troy Deeney, an anachronistic club-wielder with the upper body strength of a Super Saiyan.
Arguably our most productive and most frustrating player in the first half was Aaron Ramsey. His ceaseless running, chasing off the ball, and interplay with Bellerin led to most of our chances, but he also strove to lose the ball a few times, take unnecessary touches, and miss our best chance by skying a glorious Alexis chip into the box. These past few months have been a character building time for Ramsey: he has been played out of position and is suffering from horrible form in front of goal, sending shots awry from distances and angles that he would certainly have scored from two seasons ago.
But I think an off-form Aaron Ramsey is one of the best off-form players to have on your team. He never ever shies away from receiving the ball, always offering himself as a willing option and trying to make things happen, boos, jeers, and fingers from the crowd be damned. His periods of bad form seem more pronounced as a result, because you see as much of him when he’s off form as when he’s on form, but I think Ramsey’s failed efforts are still far more preferable to hiding from passes, letting the game pass you by, and doing disappearing acts, which a few other Arsenal players can be accused of doing when off their touch.
There’s a footballing maxim on the best way of getting through a period of bad form being to play oneself through it, and Honest Aaron certainly abides by that. He kept running and buzzing and willing something to happen, and it did in the second half.
When obdurate defence meets circuitous attack, the first goal becomes vitally important. If the attacking team scores, the hitherto parked bus has to move forward and risk counter attacks, making the game more open overall. If the defending team manage to sneak in the first goal, four more buses are parallel parked and enclosed in a lead-lined dome, making the immovable object even more so.
A ten second period midway through the second half proved pivotal in this regard. Capoue had advanced to the edge of Arsenal’s box and took an almighty fall under apparent pressure from Coquelin (replays proved that fall may have been influenced by a particularly gusty gust of wind). The ref waved play on and Alexis charged up the other end of the pitch, his virtuoso groin serenading the air as it whooshed by. He played it to Ozil, who passed it on to Cazorla, who fooled all 20,000 people in the stadium with a whip-cream-delish reverse ball into Ozil again. The German waltzed into the box, was felled under pressure from the Watford CB, and the ball broke for Alexis to slam home off the inside of the post. First goal to the unstoppable force, and it only became more unstoppable.
A few minutes later, Ramsey had the ball just outside the Watford box and his deflected shot broke to Ozil on the right side of goal, who cut it back inside for the newly-bearded Giroud to lash home with his chocolate foot. Giroud and Walcott now have four goals each, and the hirsute Frenchman is proving a valuable option to have from the bench.
Watford had barely recovered from this well-placed one-two before Arsenal roundhoused in a third. Bellerin (most productive attacking threat in Europe, don’t you know) got the ball on the right and sped inside, his Hermes boots leaving behind a mangled mess of fallen defenders. He laid it up on a plate for Ramsey, who still tried to put a hole in said plate by crashing his shot against a defender, but it somehow trundled beyond the line.
So we got a second 3-0 win in succession after the Unitedectomy two weeks ago, and sit in second place, two points behind the high-flying but potentially combustible Hindenburg that is Man City. If we continue to be clinical and professional in the games against so-called lesser opposition, and aggressive and hungry against main rivals, this season may well be the one we’ve waited more than a decade for.
Oh, wait, wait. Wenger said something to this effect after the game (not quoting word-for-word, but from what I can remember):
“Watford were very committed today, strong in the challenge and to every second ball. It took us time to adjust to that level of commitment. Maybe in the first half we thought sub-consciously that it would be easier than it was. But the players learnt quickly to adjust the commitment levels, because they are intelligent.”
Sigh. Intelligent gnats.