Arsenal started the season with a 4-3 home defeat to Liverpool after taking an early lead and then played out a relatively stale 0-0 draw at Leicester. And so, heading into last weekend, a victory at Watford was as close to a necessity as one could find so early in the season. The team responded with their best performance of the young season, storming out to a 3-0 halftime lead before finishing the job with a more defensive-oriented second half.
The scoring for the Gunners started early, as Sanchez was clattered in the box as he sought to head an excellent cross from Ozil. Santi Cazorla stepped up and scored his first league goal in 40 long games (9’). The Gunners were rampant, exchanging passes with ease and creating chances, though it took until the 40th minute for the second, when a perfectly placed Walcott cross found Sanchez at the far corner, his clever chip from close in just crossing the line over the goalkeeper’s head. In the minute of extra time in the first half, they made it three as Sanchez turned from scorer to provider, sending in an excellent cross from the left that found a charging Ozil beat Watford’s defenders to the ball and head it powerfully across goal. Up three at halftime, it was not surprising that the Gunners put the brakes on a little in the second half, though a relentless Watford attack did provide several opportunities to get back in the game. Their sole goal of the afternoon came in the 57th minute, when Roberto Pereyra finally got some payoff for an excellent performance by glomming on to a ball ping ponging around the box and slotting it calmly to the left corner of the goal. Watford tried to pull closer, but Arsenal gained some poise and passed the ball around without much forward momentum to slow things down and see out the victory.
Overall, the Gunners bossed 55 percent possession for the game, though Watford’s spirited second half display saw them outshoot Arsenal 14 to 10, with the Gunners both more clinical and on target scoring their three goals on seven shots on target to one in six for Watford. Sanchez, Ozil and new signing Xhaka were particularly impressive for Arsenal, with Koscielny solid at the back and Holding his own. However, Monreal seemed off his best form, Bellerin was beaten down the right side a little too often and Arsenal were lucky only to conceded one goal after a rather lackluster defensive display in the second half.
The signing of central defender Mustafi from Valencia might be just the remedy to some suspect defending in two of their first three league games, and the impressive performance of Xhaka will give Gooners hope that Arsenal have finally solved their defensive woes over the past several years. Mustafi and Koscielny should create a formidable core to the back line, backed by Monreal (one of the most consistent performers for the Gunners last season) and the speedy Bellerin. Xhaka should provide more cover for that back line, and they now have Coquelin and Elneny to create more stability from back to front. A hot streak from Ozil and Sanchez would help as well, particularly until some of the injured starters get back. On top of this, the cheap 2 million pound price for the promising young CB Holding could turn out to be money well spent a few seasons down the road, after two decent performances in succession.
The big disappointment was the failure to sign a world class forward, though they are harder to come by than they used to be. Perez could add some speed, guile and goals to the side, but he is certainly a step below targets like Lewandowski, Morata and Higuian (or even Vardy, though one does wonder how well he would have fit into the side). There is no question that Walcott is behind his best form from a few season back, but another option on the right is Ox, who appeared to be playing better before his latest injury. The season might ultimately again come down to the performance of Giroud, however, and one wonders if he can be expected to throw in the 20+ league goals necessary to a title winning side.
Wenger has spent over 90 million pounds this summer, plugging the three holes that have plagued the Gunners for a few years now. Whether Xhaka, Mustafi and Perez will solve problems of past seasons is still to be determined, but Arsenal are now a team that can certainly compete at the top. The fact he took longer to complete the latter two deals does see the Gunners already five points behind after only three games to their biggest competitors for the crown – the newly invigorated Manchester United, the Guardiola led City and the new-old Chelsea of Conte. Two weeks until we see how those pieces fit together.