Premier League 2018/19: Arsenal vs Watford
This tactical analysis originally featured on a site in our analysis network, wearethearsenal.uk
It was an intensive Saturday for Arsenal once again as the team earned a seventh consecutive win in all competitions after beating Watford 2-0 at home in the Premier League. It all came in late as it was a dynamic game and the Hornets missed plenty of opportunities. They conceded two goals in the blink of an eye and that made it impossible for them to come back.
For better or for worse, Unai Emery was rushed to make some changes due to injuries and the defensive line was tested with the opponent’s captain Troy Deeney and his teammate Roberto Pereyra trying to make their life harder.
Watford was the better team, but the players couldn’t take advantage of the opportunities they brilliantly created. This was their 12th defeat out of their last 15 away games. Unai Emery couldn’t stay still and managed to motivate his players once again as we witnessed a second-half improvement, backed with some squad changes. The Gunners have scored 10 Premier League goals in the second half this season, a joint-high tally along with Manchester City.
But how did this win come and how did the Londoners manage to skunk their sometimes-better opponents?
Holding a day keeps the opponents away
There was one noticeable thing no matter the pressure put from the Watford players and it was Rob Holding’s performance. The guy is not “holding” it back as he takes every chance to prove he deserves more playing time. This was his first start of the season in the Premier League after coming in as a sub against Everton, replacing the injured Sokratis. And surprisingly, he looked more ready than ever. It’s safe to say that Holding played better than any of his teammates against Watford and played a huge part in not only Arsenal keeping a clean sheet but not losing this game. He made 6 clearances, 3 interceptions, won six out of his eight duels and had a pass accuracy percentage of 88. But honestly, he had a better support than what Sokratis was getting before getting injured. Shkodran Mustafi’s performance was more solid than normal with 6 clearances, 2 interceptions and 3 accurate long balls, adding one shot off the target. Expectedly, he had lower pass accuracy rate – 76% and won only 5 duels out of 11.
Holding received the ball and dribbled perfectly past his opponent. He did it quickly enough to go forward and send the ball on the flank and help in building up an attack.
Mustafi lost his aerial duel and Holding had to work on his defensive positioning quickly. He managed to reach the edge of the box along with his opponent, applied a pressing duel and managed to get the ball and make a clearance.
In an identical situation, Troy Deeney made a long-range pass to Gray, who thought that could slip behind Rob’s back, but Holding didn’t let his opponent outrun him and made sure the ball goes in Cech’s hands. His defensive positioning was on a top level during the whole game.
Bernd Leno got his first chance to start in the Premier League after Peter Cech got injured on Saturday. By then, the experienced goalkeeper was doing his best to keep the clean sheet as the opponent’s attack was too energetic to be handled. His solid performance continued as long as he didn’t have to use his feet. And it looks like it’s more of a state of mind than lack of skills. He is just not used to it and panics over it. Despite him being terrified of getting the ball in his feet, he did it good enough to keep the goal safe until a hamstring injury sidelined him at the end of the first half. With Leno coming in, it felt like this could be the crucial moment of Emery choosing who is going to take the starting XI spot from now on. The German didn’t disappoint as he kept the clean sheet and made few important saves. There wasn’t anything unusual as it is clear how good Leno is. But there is one thing that stood out in my mind:
You could rarely (never) see Cech going up the pitch to support his teammates and keep the pace of the game. That’s a proof that Bernd feels a way more comfortable using his feet. With his actions, he gave his teammates a chance to react quickly and start building an attack again. As we all know, Arsenal’s defenders often send the ball back to Cech when feeling insecure. Leno showed that he is focused and is always there to provide some support to the defensive line.
Iwobi making the difference
It was the whole team that performed better during the second half, but this one substitution made a big difference and changed the pace of the game. Alex Iwobi replaced the mediocre Ramsey in the 63rd minute and his fresh presence was immediately noticed. It gave more energy, options and support to Lacazette, Aubameyang and Ozil.
To be honest, I might be one of his biggest critics as he failed to prove (at least to me) his qualities and he never played on his potential. But I should admit that this season, he seems more excited to play, more confident, creative and ready to prove me wrong. His performance is more consistent this season and his runs to the final third are more effective. He is now involved in more goal opportunities than before and playing out wide is giving him a better position to support his teammates, from.
The advantage of Iwobi staying wide is that he can use his off-the-ball movement and create chances. In both pictures, the full-backs went up front so their opponents were busy with taking care of them. That’s when Iwobi used the gap on the edge of the box and positioned himself so he can receive the ball. In both situations, he was able to make a cross and eventually dangerous opportunity. The first situation led to chaotic defensive actions in the box and then the own-goal of Craig Cathcart.
After scoring for 2-0 against Watford, Mesut Ozil already has two goals in his last three Premier League games – as many as he managed in his previous 18. He looks a lot more cautious and involved in the team’s performance. To add to his improved performance, Alexandre Lacazette has been directly involved in 22 Premier League goals for Arsenal (16 goals, 6 assists), since the start of last season – five more than any other player.
Man of the Match
Jose Holebas was given the MOTM award as he created a few good opportunities for his team. He managed to send in 4 accurate crosses (more than anyone else) and made two of the fastest Arsenal players in Bellerin and Aubameyang look inconsistent and lost. He created 2 big chances and made 3 key passes – not bad for a left-back. Making 2 clearances, 2 interceptions, and winning seven out of nine duels added more reasons for him to get the award.
Holebas received the ball and had two options for a pass – Gray and Deeney. His decision-making was strong as he saw that Gray could outrun Mustafi and then eventually, cross to Deeney if he manages to free himself and enter the box.
In here, Bellerin’s poor defending could’ve cost the team go down by one. Jose showed a perfect dribbling and outran the Spaniard. Then, he managed to go further and make a cross to the box, where seconds later, Deeney was waiting to receive the ball.
Deeney and Pereyra
The Gunners had conceded nine goals in the league, three more than Watford and had struggled guarding the goal against the Golden Boys.
Deeney, Perreira and Gray were all on fire, creating chances and reaching the final third without hesitation. Looking at their stats, it all looks poor for Arsenal, but actually, it was all a waste as none of these opportunities ended up with a goal. The captain Deeney was booked in the 31st-minute, he continued to make the defenders’ life miserable. He had two shots on target, made 4 key passes and sent 2 accurate long balls. But don’t let it fool you. His pass accuracy rate was 57% with him making 11 passes overall. He didn’t do too well with his duels too as he won only eight out of eighteen. This was crucial in the final third as he couldn’t take advantage of the created opportunities, often losing the ball. Roberto Pereyra added value to the team’s performance with some accurate crosses and long balls. He reached the box on a few occasions and had two shots off target.
These are the consequences of Bellerin’s actions against Holebas. Deeney reached the ball and in the split-second, Monreal and Holding were covering him, Hughes sneaked behind their back and was able to shoot. As we could see the problem with Arsenal’s defenders letting an opponent’s player get behind them is still present.
An example of the wrong timing is this moment when Mustafi was too slow and let Deeney sneak right in front of him and threat the goal. The defensive line is often caught unprepared and that is crucial of all the conceded opportunities.
On the other side, Watford’s players were often unfocused and gave up the possession in the blink of an eye. In here, the highly-positioned (or should I say non-existing) defensive line was the reason Lacazette was able to apply an offensive duel. Cathcart easily gave up the possession and that led to a goalscoring opportunity (which was wasted). Actually, it was his own-goal that gave an advantage to the Arsenal in the 81st-minute.
Arsenal’s defensive movement is improving week-by-week. There is still much work to be done but the foundation is there. Using Iwobi off the bench may be a key part of keeping the winning streak as the youngster made some solid actions, occasionally. The dilemma about the centre-back pair is still there as Rob Holding proved he is ready to compete in the Premier League and even do it better than his more experienced teammates. It’s a matter of time to see if he would be able to deal with the championship and Europa League.
The key to Watford’s performance is their attacking power. They have some really good players that can make the difference. If they can offset the not-so-many goals that the defensive line is conceding, they could finish in the top half of the table.