Still a work in progress but making steps of progress with each match, Arsenal look to make it seven wins on the spin Saturday when they host a Watford side trying to shake off a tough exit in the Carabao Cup.
POTENTIAL STARTING XIs
These sides are separated by one point and two spots in the table, with Watford (4-1-1) in fourth and Arsenal (4-0-2) sixth. The two sides are also trending in different directions – the Gunners are seeking their first seven-match winning streak since Sept. 17-Oct. 19, 2016, while the Hornets are winless in their last three overall after starting the season with the maximum 12 points in league play while winning their first five contests.
While Unai Emery’s team did not record back-to-back clean sheets, they did enough to advance to the fourth round of the Carabao Cup on Wednesday with a 3-1 victory over Championship side Brentford. Danny Welbeck had a first-half brace, giving him four goals during this win streak, and Alexander Lacazette put the tie out of reach with a stoppage-time marker.
“I am very happy individually with the player. Danny Welbeck is working with this commitment and when he is playing also with a performance like today, and I think he’s helping the team and we want this,” Emery said of Welbeck, who is in the final year of his contract as both sides are reportedly discussing an extension. “Also it’s more chances for us to find the first XI for the next matches with performances like today’s.”
Cracking that first-choice lineup, however, will be a challenge since both Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang also are in fine form with seven goals between them in the last five matches. Welbeck has logged just 30 minutes in league play but has made the most of his starts with goals in all three competitions having also scored in Europa League.
“I’m happy with the goals, but more importantly I am happy that we have gone through to the next round and put in a good performance against a good side,” Welbeck told Arsenal’s official website. “We’re taking it game by game, but now we look ahead to Watford on Saturday in the Premier League. That is our main focus at the moment but every single game is important for us.”
All told, Emery overturned nine of his starters from last weekend’s 2-0 win over Everton that turned on a world-class goal by Lacazette and one from Aubameyang three minutes apart in the second half.
One of those changes may be in effect for this match as well with centre back Sokratis Papastathopoulous unlikely to feature due to a knee injury suffered against Everton. Rob Holding, who entered late in the first half for Sokratis and helped the Gunners record their first shutout of the season, played the full 90 against Brentford.
Watford make the short trek into London’s city limits feeling aggrieved after losing to Tottenham Hotspur on penalties after a 2-2 draw Wednesday at Stadium MK. The match was drawn as a home contest for Spurs, whose renovations at White Hart Lane are on-going and were unable to secure Wembley for use. Tottenham requested the MK Stadium venue, which was approved by the EFL over Watford’s objections, and one-time Milton Keynes product Dele Alli drew Spurs level at 1 with a penalty in the 82nd minute after a foul that resulted in a straight red card to centre back Christian Kabasele.
After the teams traded goals in the final four minutes, Alli was again decisive from the spot as both Etienne Capoue and Domingos Quina missed for Watford while Heruelho Gomes failed to stop any of Tottenham’s four attempts.
Watford manager Javi Gracia was incensed over referee Lee Mason’s decision and told The Times, “I like to respect the referee’s decisions but it’s hard to accept the penalty and the red card decision. What I saw was Dele and Kabasele fighting to win possession. We will appeal the red card.”
It will be an important appeal because Gracia has used the same starting XI for all six league contests. Central defender Craig Cathcart was the only holdover from last weekend’s 1-1 draw at Fulham, where Andre Gray scored for the second straight league match. The striker has three goals, sharing joint honours with Roberto Peryera, after totaling five in 31 matches last term.
In a bid to help Gracia keep continuity in the lineup, fellow striker Troy Deeney said he will be getting an injection during the week to deal with an ankle injury suffered in a challenge from Fulham’s Timothy Fosu-Mensah. That is in addition to the broken toes he has been playing with since late last month.
“I have to have another injection, this time in the ankle, for the weekend so I’ll be ready for Arsenal,” Deeney told the Evening Standard as he prepares to reprise his role as Public Enemy No. 1 at the Emirates – where Arsenal supporters will recall his comments last season after Watford’s home win over the Gunners in which he said Arsenal “lacked cojones.”
“There’s a bit of ligament damage in there but nothing a few injections can’t help. It’s going to take more than that to stop me playing against Arsenal.”
The Gunners had the last laugh on Deeney in last season’s corresponding fixture, winning 3-0 as the Hornets striker missed a penalty in the second half that would have made it 2-1. Watford is 3-0-8 against Arsenal in the Premier League era, but two of the wins have come at the Emirates, most notably their 2016 FA Cup quarterfinal upset.
Per Ladbrokes, Arsenal are solid 4/9 favourites to make it a seventh consecutive win on the trot and have 18/5 odds to take at least one point from the match. Watford are lengthy 5/1 underdogs to record their third win in four overall matches at the Emirates.
Arsenal are also better than even money to win this game with more than 2.5 goals scored at 10/11 odds, and the Gunners get 4/1 odds for a 1-0 or 2-0 victory. A low-scoring draw is a 6/1 pick, followed by a Hornets victory over 2.5 goals at 15/2 and a clean sheet for Gracia’s team via 1-0 or 2-0 win a 16/1 longshot.
Aubameyang edges out Lacazette to lead the line for first-goal honours, with the Gabon international listed at 16/5 while the France striker is 7/2 to make it 1-0 to the Arsenal. Welbeck’s stellar recent form has him listed as a third choice at 9/2, while Aaron Ramsey (13/2) and Henrik Mkhitaryan (13/2) round out the top five. Gray narrowly edges out Deeney as Watford’s top option for a first goal to the Hornets at 17/2 compared to Deeney’s 9/1 return.
The Arsenal duo of Aubameyang (5/6) and Lacazette (19/20) have better than even money odds to score during the match, and Welbeck is lurking right behind the pair at 5/4. That makes sense since the trio have accounted for all but one of the last nine Gunners goals.
Gray has 12/5 odds to score for Watford, just ahead of Deeney (5/2), while Roberto Pereyra is an intriguing listing at 7/2 to find the back of the net.
Little by little, match by match, there is slowly an identity taking hold at Arsenal under Emery. The Gunners are trying to do the little things to see out matches, covering the details that seemed to not matter in the final stages of Arsene Wenger’s tenure. There has been talk of that during the week, with Cech’s comments to The Guardian about style meaning more than substance to “Le Professeur” surprising given the source as opposed to the content of the critique.
Arsenal are becoming a cohesive team with each passing match. The attack is solid, and with Welbeck coming on, there’s now options across the board for Emery to pull the trigger earlier on switches among the attacking four if he seems someone having an off-night.
The decision to bring Lucas Torreira along slowly following his summer signing has paid dividends, but one still feels the pairing of the Uruguay international and teenager Matteo Guendouzi in front of the back four is the ultimate end game for Emery, which leaves Granit Xhaka as the odd man out.
The back four is still prone to mistakes but improving as a unit. That will be challenged to a degree if Sokratis is unable to play in this match, but Holding appears light years better than the wide-eyed youngster who looked overmatched a few seasons prior.
The surprising falling apart of the contract negotiations between the club and Ramsey is a discussion for another day, but with the rumours already swirling the team is determined to get something for him in the January window as opposed to potentially losing him on a free transfer at season’s end is another sign Arsenal are adapting to modern times.
For Watford, this is an opportunity to show they learned their lesson from the loss to Manchester United. The Hornets afforded the Red Devils too much respect that day, and when they finally took the initiative to Manchester United, they were almost able to steal a point at the death.
It will be tougher doing so at the Emirates in contrast to Vicarage Road, but with Deeney setting the example of how important this match is via his choice for an injection, that kind of combativeness can be contagious in a positive way.
Watford are eager to see Kabasele’s red card overturned — something that has a strong chance of happening considering it appeared Mason reverted to the old rules regarding the “last man” defending — and that would also be a huge plus to maintaining the continuity Gracia has enjoyed in the early part of the season.
The Hornets have started brightly in recent years only to fade into mid-table obscurity by the time the holiday fixtures roll around. Watford need their left side — most notably Jose Holebas and Pereyra — to start causing mischief on the flank to help Deeney and Gray find space to operate against Arsenal’s central defenders.
Despite their 2-0 scoreline against Everton, there was not all that much separating the Gunners from the Toffees, and it can be argued Aubameyang’s goal should have been chalked off for being offsides. The Hornets are closer than many think to being in that mix of teams that will comprise seventh through 10th in the table, and getting a point here will go a long way towards that coming to fruition come May.
PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Arsenal 1, Watford 1.