Arsenal headed into the match on a relative high, winning six of the last seven matches, and keeping five clean sheets. Without Alexis Sanchez and Aaron Ramsey, Wenger adopted a conservative approach with Danny Welbeck and Mohamed Elneny replacing like-for-like. The inclusion of Welbeck was questionable, considering he recently came back from a muscular injury and has a history of re-aggravation. The fact that Arsenal has struggled away from home in the league made this match of some importance. Arsenal played a game of two halves, creating stable ball progression combined with dynamic lateral interchanges then reverted to the common defensive failings that have plagued them all season.
Arsenal: Cech; Monreal, Mertesacker, Koscielny (Holding); Kolasinac, Xhaka, Elneny, Bellerin; Welbeck (Ozil), Lacazette (Giroud), Iwobi
Watford: Gomes; Britos, Kabasele, Mariappa (Carrillo); Holebas, Doucoure, Cleverly, Femenia; Richarlison, Gray (Deeney), Pereyra (Capoue)
Arsenal’s strategy of ball progression has been consistent since the beginning of the season. The three centre halves act as the first source of ball distribution. The wing-backs push higher up the pitch, maintaining the width of the formation. One of the two central midfielders, in this case, Xhaka or Elneny, would drop deeper into the 6 space while the other would move forward. Arsenal’s common tactic was to shift possession across the back line and use the wing backs to connect possession to the forwards, with either Iwobi or Welbeck dropping between the lines to make a diamond. At times, however, the spacing of the formation during ball movement would be too far, forcing the ball handler to pass to the back line to recycle possession.
Watford matched Arsenal like-for-like by fielding a 3-4-3 with Richarlison and Pereyra flanking Gray as the front three. They adopted the same pressing strategy that other teams have deployed against Arsenal, dropping deeper and allowing the three center halves to pass sideways. As Arsenal progressed into the midfield, Watford would press aggressively to force the ball to move backward or tempt a risky sideways or forward pass. Arsenal found progression through the center difficult at times. At moments, you can see Doucoure and Cleverly side glancing towards Xhaka and Elneny to make sure they maintained an effective distance for immediate pressing.
The lack of ball-near movement hindered more advanced ball progression. At times, Elneny or Xhaka would lack the distance to provide an option for escaping pressure. Even if the midfield received the ball, Watford’s reversion to a 5-4-1 in the defensive phase choked passing lanes. Arsenal tried to bypass the mid-block either through vertical passing to the inside forwards or diagonal balls into wide spaces. Iwobi was quite effective in finding gaps in the half spaces to receive the ball and generate quick passes. Wenger as well allowed dynamic movement between the front three, with all constantly interchanging positions, dragging defenders out of position to open space for other attackers. This worked well in causing some confusion among Watford’s back line but the lack of an effective presence in front of goal would stall the attacking movement.
Against a low block in the final third, Arsenal struggled to find gaps to create goal-scoring chances. Their attack lacked movement in depth and would too often create a static line of five attackers around the 18-yard box. Watford closed down the spaces and made it difficult for Arsenal to generate quality goalscoring chances.
Some of Arsenal’s best chances occurred when they transitioned effectively from defence to attack, finding wide spaces for the wing backs to burst into. In one chance in the first half, Xhaka played a vertical pass to Iwobi, who was occupying a dangerous position between the lines. He quickly turned and drove towards the defensive line, played a wide pass to Bellerin, who just missed Lacazette for a header towards goal. In this case, Iwobi would drop deep to trigger the attacking phase, though Lacazette was effective in doing this as well.
Arsenal’s capitulation can be summarised with the penalty given to Richarlison in the 71st minute. Far too often, Arsenal allowed Kabasele, Doucoure, and Cleverley to walk into the central area and dictate the tempo. It became easy then to bypass Arsenal’s “press” and play dangerous vertical and diagonal passes into the final third. Press in quotations is deliberate. What kind of defensive team is Arsenal trying to be? That needs to be figured out soon because they’re not particularly good at anything. They struggle to deny progression through the centre or the wings; they lack strong spatial coverage with multiple players pointing to spaces they expect others to fill, which of course gets covered by no one; and they stop their presses too far from the ball carrier as if they have an electric dog collar that shocks them when they get too close.
A 3-4-3, when deployed effectively, grants greater width for the defensive line through the wingbacks dropping deeper to form a 5-4-1. Not only would you have effective coverage in wide areas, but the presence of three centre backs provides cover in the box as well. When the midfielders become involved in defence, they can provide a second direction of pressing to force opponents to recycle possession backward or give up possession altogether.
For Arsenal, however, they get too easily broken down by opponents. Their low block can become a LOW block, often giving midfielders the space to shift play quickly. Later in the game, the four midfielders would leave gaps between their defensive line by getting back slowly then failing to press to deny easy ball movement. They lost second balls far too easily, especially when Deeney came on in the 63rd minute. Lastly, they became sloppier with possession towards the end, passing straight to Watford then failing to press when they lost the ball. Xhaka and Bellerin were culpable for several lazy passes that stalled their transition. The final goal by Cleverly wraps that all in a neat, little package.
Arsenal could play what-if’s, especially if Ozil’s timid finish was taken by someone like Lacazette or Wenger actually thought about his substitutions. I would have brought on Wilshere to shore up the midfield because Arsenal was being outplayed by Doucoure and Cleverley. Unfortunately, none of that is the case. Watford improved in the second half and deserved something from this match. That they grabbed the win means we are back to square one.