Arsenal need to win at least six of their last eight games, and probably all of them, if they are to have a chance to usurp the 11 points that separated them from Leicester. Given the opportunity to cut that lead to eight with a game in hand, the Gunners could ill-afford to repeat their awful home performance again Watford in the FA Cup today. They did the opposite, putting four past the Hornets in a dynamic and controlled effort that put pressure on Tottenham and Leicester above them while moving their goal difference to within one of the surprise table leaders. It could be too little too late, but Arsenal have certainly found some of their old flair in the past few games.
Three Thoughts on the Game:
1. Sanchez Renaissance: Alexis Sanchez has largely had a season to forget, spending well over a month on the sideline and failing to recapture the blistering form of his first year in England. Early evidence suggested that disappointment might continue as his first three touches resulted in turnovers, but he eased the butterflies soon after with a hungry goal on four minutes when after his header was parried away only for him to pounce and pound it past Gomes. He then turned from scorer to provider cutting the ball back across goal to Iwobi who coolly slotted it home on 38 minutes. Sanchez was rampant throughout the game, complementing the two assists he had in his last two league games and the two for Chile during the international break. The Chilean will never be charged with lack of effort and passion, but much of this term, that effort has seemed to lack the cutting edge we’ve seen in the past. He will always turn the ball over at a troubling rate, given the ambition of his play, but that had become too frequent an occurrence this calendar year. Today, his passes were crisp and largely on target, more of his dribbles were successful and he was industrious and clever in and around the box. One hopes this is the beginning of a late renaissance that can help Arsenal finish strongly and dream, as unlikely as it seems, of a title that really should have been theirs.
2. A Winning Formula: Alex Iwobi, though still raw at 19 years-old, has seemed to spark the Arsenal attack ever since the Barcelona game and, together with the active if still misfiring-a-little-too-often Welbeck, has restored the forward flair that punctuates the Gunner’s best football over the past few years. The absence of so many of the usual starters is certainly telling over the past few games and begs questions about who their best 11 is. That it has failed to include Joel Campbell, after a nice run of games in the last two months of last year, begs further questions about Wenger and a tendency to stick with ineffective players for far too long during bad stretches. In his short time on the pitch today, he looked lively and provided the fourth goal with a nice touch of the brilliant long ball from Ozil and then service to Walcott for a neat finish from close in. Another player who has certainly shown himself to be a great signing is Elneny, who provides an effective defensive shield in front of the nimble back four (alongside Coquelin) together with a nice range and accuracy of passing and the ability to move forward and score the occasional goal. He had a number of fine tackles today and was one of the key distributors from back to front, serving as something of a fulcrum throughout. While Welbeck didn’t score, he was lively throughout himself and seems to open up space for the players around him.
The rest of the starters, barring Gabriel, put in good shifts as well, with Bellerin scoring a deflected goal in the 48th minute to essentially put the game out of reach, Monreal solid if unspectacular, Koscielny showing his worth, Ospina provided a couple of great saves and Coquelin stunting most of Watford’s counters. Ozil was at his imperious best, though he failed to record either a goal or assist. At one point, his pirouetting became too much for Norwich’s right back and he pushed him to the ground. The one dark spot on the dominating performance was Gabriel who was again out of position a little too often, and turned far too easily by wingers and strikers alike.
To put the performance into perspective, Arsenal dominated possession to the tune of 69 percent, had 19 shots to Watford’s 6, with an impressive 12 on target, and had almost as many tackles as the Hornets (15 to 19) while on the front foot most of the game. It is fair to say that Watford were below their best, but that was largely down to a solid, professional home performance from the Gunners. With two clean sheets in a row, one does wonder if the balance and attacking sense of the current starters is the way forward for the team as they seek to build on the momentum of two strong performances in a row.
3. The Future of the Squad: it is hard to ignore how much better Arsenal have been playing with this this collection of young players than with their regular starters in the past few games. Could it finally be time for Wenger to admit that a more dynamic presence up front will reap more goals than the lumbering and inconsistent Giroud? Could it be that the double DM pivot of Elneny and Coquelin is actually even more effective than either Cazorla or Ramsey in those positions? Is Walcott’s career at Arsenal about to end, after yet another disappointing campaign, even with the late goal today? There is clearly still room on this team for the talented Cazorla and Ramsey, but one does wonder if parting company with Walcott and Giroud, and replacing them with more solid players, might be the right way forward if the Gunners are to take the next step and finally win a title.
One might go even further and wonder if two players who have been more about future potential than results for far too long – Ox and Wilshere – are simply a waste of time and resources for the club, particularly since both spend so much time on the treatment table. The emergence of Iwobi reminds us that there is talent in the academy that might warrant a further look, especially when we look to some of the ex-Gunner youth now plying their trade in the EPL and Championship with some distinction. A world class striker is clearly still the major ask for the team, but there are other places they could improve.
Looking at the defense, it is clear that Arsenal need another DM and may want to make it two and part company with Gabriel who, after looking quiet strong early in the season, has become a player too prone to mistakes and poor positioning. In this game, the Watford threat came almost exclusively from the left side of the pitch and they were unlucky to not score when both Ighalo and Deeney turned Gabriel with relative ease.
As to Watford, they seem safe on 37 points and are two wins away from an unlikely FA Cup trophy, but they must be concerned about the drying up of goals by Ighalo and Deeney and the fall down the table during the second half of the season. Yet staying up and getting to Wembley has to be considered a successful season and they have already accomplished both. Arsenal, on the other hand, might well go empty in the trophy case for the first time in three seasons and that would be disappointing after the win over Leicester 2-1 on February 14. At that point, they were two points back, before losing to United and Swansea and drawing a game with Tottenham they were leading at the half. A late charge could give them hope if both the Spurs and Leicester start dropping points (Tottenham did drop two today at Liverpool), but they might have left themselves too far a road to the crown that really should have been theirs. And so the annual Gooner refrain seems all but apropos at this point … maybe next season!