After those two away defeats to Everton and City in December, Arsenal have quietly played themselves into some form. Seven wins in their last eight games in all competitions has seen us move up to 2nd in the Premier League and progress to the 5th Round of the FA Cup. In that time we’ve scored 19 goals. The fixture list has been kind but we’re heading into a big week in pretty decent shape.
Every week, at this point, is a big one. Chelsea have such a lead on everyone that any more slip ups would make their title win even more a precession. For Arsenal to have a shot at winning the title, they need to defeat Watford, hope Liverpool beat Chelsea and then beat Chelsea themselves on Saturday. That’d cut the gap down to two points. Then we’d need to keep on winning, which would be a tough ask given we have trips to Liverpool and Spurs to make, and have to visit bogey teams like Southampton and Stoke. If we’re being realistic, our chances of pulling it off are remote.
Before all that, of course, we have to get through a Watford team in poor form. The Hornets have won just once in their last 10 games and haven’t won a league game since early December. Injuries and AFCON call-ups have weakened their squad. It’s one of those games that look very straightforward on paper but experience tells us that it’s these games that can easily go wrong if the team isn’t focused. It certainly won’t be the blowout we saw against Southampton last Saturday.
The front-three that tore Southampton apart in the FA Cup are unlikely to be together again tonight. Lucas is one of the squad’s most under-utilised players but will likely be benched for Giroud. This means Alexis will be pushed over to the left-hand side again, and with Ozil returning to the middle it leaves just the one spot for Welbeck, Walcott or Iwobi to claim. Welbeck’s fine performance on Saturday was very encouraging, but Wenger said:
“We still have to be cautious. Physically, he is ready to play but we will have to manage the times when we use him.”
With big games to come in the Premier League and the Champions League, it’d certainly be wise not to rush Welbeck back into the team. We have other options in the meantime. Likewise, I can see Walcott starting from the bench as he’s only just come back from a month out. He’d have to wait for his 100th Arsenal goal but being honest, I’d rather he get that against Chelsea than against Watford.
Wenger also had to answer the inevitable questions about Oxlade-Chamberlain’s best position after his fine FA Cup performance from central midfield. On this, he said:
“He is a good flank player and a good central player, but the future, personally I would say, is more central than on the flank for him. But when you are young, you want to come in the team and the push is always a bit more on the flank. Why? Because centrally there is more experience demanded, more planning, more tactical planning and on the flanks you can be a bit more instinctive. But naturally, he is a guy I think who is comfortable to be involved always in the game. It looks in all the games he played central, in many of them he has done very well.”
The question comes up every year. The problem Ox has is that he has many very good midfielders ahead of him in central midfield and will never get a consistent run of games there. I expect he’ll return to the bench tonight, with Coquelin and Ramsey returning to the side. However, with Xhaka out for three more games, Elneny away with Egypt and Cazorla out for the season, it’s encouraging to have Ox as another option in the likely event of injury.
It’s difficult not to focus on the Chelesa game on Saturday. Ideally, we’ll have the points secured with time to spare so we can rest key players and give important minutes to others. Despite Watford’s problems, though, they still carry a threat on set-pieces with Troy Deeney and new signing M’Baye Niang, who once had a trial at Arsenal, is a pacey, powerful runner with the ball that we’ll have to be careful of during counters. Monreal and Bellerin will have an important role to play in occupying Watford’s wing backs and stretching their backline. With effective use of width, we should find it easy to open Watford up. However, if we force everything through the centre like we tend to, it could be a more awkward evening than expected.
A focused Arsenal performance should see them get the three points and go into that vital Chelsea game in good shape. Meanwhile, we’ll all be keeping an eye on that game at Anfield and hoping Liverpool can sort themselves out in time to take something off Chelsea.