Watford's late comeback makes Arsenal pay for missed opportunities
WATFORD, England -- Three thoughts on Watford's 2-1 win vs. Arsenal in the Premier League.
1. Hosts hit back to stun Gunners
Marco Silva has unquestionably made an impressive start as Watford manager, but ahead of kickoff on Saturday, he still lacked a home victory.
But a little more than 90 minutes later, Vicarage Road was celebrating three points for the first time this season; Tom Cleverley's stoppage-time goal means Silva's men leapfrog Arsenal and move into the top four.
The game essentially hinged on a single minute, midway through the second half and with Arsenal 1-0 ahead. Mesut Ozil, recently summoned from the bench, was slipped through by Alex Iwobi and was one-on-one with Heurelho Gomes, but his typically weak shot was hit straight at the home goalkeeper. seconds later, Watford's flying left winger Richarlison was brought down by Hector Bellerin, allowing Troy Deeney to smash home the spot kick.
The first two goals of the game were scored by very different players in a similar situation: Club captains who have not seen much action this season.
This was the first time in 110 matches that Arsenal's official skipper had started, with first Mikel Arteta and now Per Mertesacker spending long periods out injured and only playing a reserve role upon their return.
Mertesacker doesn't really score enough to have a "classic goal," but given his 6-foot-6-inch height, a bullet header would be most likely. Granit Xhaka's outswinging, 39th-minute corner was lofted to a position only Mertesacker could reach and he duly powered past Gomes.
Deeney, meanwhile, was a substitute here and has started only once this season, but he remains reliable from the spot and his penalty set up the 92nd-minute drama that saw Watford complete yet another comeback.
For the third league game in a row and the fourth time overall this season, they scored a result-changing goal in the last minute. After two Watford shots were blocked, the ball ran loose and cried out for someone to smash it home; Cleverley was in the right place at the right time to convert and send home supporters wild.
2. Ozil miss indicative of poor Arsenal finishing
Arsene Wenger's line-up did not feature the star duo of Alexis Sanchez and Ozil, with the former injured and the latter only fit for the bench. With Aaron Ramsey also ruled out, there was a distinct lack of attacking invention in the Arsenal XI and they largely relied upon direct play towards Alexandre Lacazette and Danny Welbeck.
The two often combined very well, with decent knock-downs and lay-offs. Welbeck started in the inside-left position but often found himself in advance of Lacazette, taking up goalscoring positions when Arsenal had the ball wide.
The visitors' best move in the first half saw them combine nicely when Lacazette skipped away from a challenge in the inside-left channel before chipping the ball to the penalty spot for Welbeck, who couldn't quite find space for a shot.
With Iwobi also bright, you get the sense Arsenal might eventually become accustomed to this forward trio, who also started together in the goalless draw at Chelsea last month.
Wenger indicated this week that Sanchez and Ozil, whose contracts expire next summer, may both leave in January, but none of Arsenal's other attackers can truly provide moments of individual magic, particularly from between the lines when trying to break down a deep defence.
When Welbeck limped off with an injury after an hour, it took Ozil just three minutes to play the first defence-splitting pass of the game and Iwobi's resulting effort was denied by Gomes. The reverse happened with 20 minutes remaining, as Iwobi charged down the left and played in Ozil.
For all Ozil's composure in build-up play, he still loses his nerve when through on goal and this proved crucial; within two minutes, Arsenal had conceded a penalty. Ozil provided them with something different and something valuable, but still ended up as the fall-guy. It rather summarises his experience overall in English football.
3. Watford inspired after half-time
Silva has earned himself a reputation as one of the Premier League's best tacticians and a crucial formation switch got Watford back into the game.
Having started with a 4-2-3-1 system in seven previous league matches this season, today he matched Wenger's system and used a 3-4-2-1 system to prevent Arsenal's wing-backs getting joy down the flanks.
It took Arsenal half an hour to attempt their first shot but Silva will be disappointed at the nature of Watford's concession. In an Arsenal side relatively short of aerial prowess, Mertesacker was the main danger.
Watford did have their moments in the first half, particularly when the impressive Abdoulaye Doucoure moved down the left and crossed for Roberto Pereyra, who couldn't get enough contact with his header. But the home side's counter-attacking was; the speedy Andre Gray played high up against Mertesacker but caused surprisingly few problems.
Silva reverted to 4-2-3-1 after an hour when winger Andre Carillo came on for centre-back Adrian Mariappa and Deeney replaced Gray to provide more of a penalty-box presence. There was an immediate improvement going forward with greater width and reward came through Deeney's spot kick.
Watford continued to create chances thereafter, with Richarlison the main man. First, after Deeney's clever knockdown, he blasted into the side netting and then, after he made ground down the left, substitute Etienne Capoue's deflected shot spun agonisingly against the post. Shortly after, a bouncing ball on the edge of the six-yard box dropped slightly behind Richarlison, whose acrobatic effort flew over the crossbar.
But Cleverley made the pressure tell, and this comeback shows what Watford can do: With a good squad, a talented manager and one of the Premier League's more raucous home supports, a push for Europe is a real possibility.
Michael Cox is the editor of zonalmarking.net and a contributor to ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Zonal_Marking.