Arsenal ride late surge to seventh straight victory as Aaron Ramsey saga rolls on
LONDON -- Three points from the Emirates on Arsenal's 2-0 win over Watford in the Premier League.
1. Arsenal scrape through, extend streak
For Arsenal, the wins keep on coming -- even if, on the strength of their performances, that makes little sense. This was their seventh consecutive triumph in all competitions and their fifth in the Premier League, earned inside the last 10 minutes by a Craig Cathcart own goal and a Mesut Ozil strike. As was the case last weekend against Everton, two goals in three minutes were enough to seal the points. It was harsh on Watford, who could have won the game before that, but the quiet revolution in North London continues apace.
Watford brimmed with intent from the start although it was Arsenal who, five minutes in, felt a big call had gone against them. Perhaps Alexandre Lacazette was, to coin a cliche, too honest when trying to stay on his feet under Christian Kabasele's challenge; instead he stumbled on into a dead end and referee Anthony Taylor rejected the hosts' vociferous penalty appeals.
Still the away side pressed, Will Hughes volleying inches wide, but Lacazette should have scored on the quarter-hour when, running clear after Cathcart had got his legs in a mess, he could only dink wide. It was a bad miss and the only gilt-edged opportunity in a first half that Arsenal broadly began to dominate. Granit Xhaka saw Ben Foster beat a meaty 20-yard strike away seven minutes before the interval; it was a lively affair but genuine incision was absent at either end and Arsenal suffered a blow when an injured Petr Cech had to be replaced by Bernd Leno as the half drew to a close.
Leno showed his worth seven minutes into the second period, making a marvellous one-handed save on Troy Deeney. Moments later Lacazette mistimed a good headed opportunity from a Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang cross and now the game had opened up once more.
As the half progressed, Watford began to look the more likely again. Roberto Pereyra jinked in from the left before curling narrowly off target in the 69th minute and three minutes later Rob Holding, generally impressive here as a stand-in for Sokratis Papastathopoulos, made a superb block to foil substitute Isaac Success. Then Success came even closer, sprinting away from Holding before seeing his chip spin agonisingly wide of the far post.
True to recent form, it was Arsenal who found a way through. The first goal was fortunate, Cathcart diverting Alex Iwobi's right-sided cross beyond Foster with Lacazette lurking. The second was more clinical, Ozil side-footing home first-time from Lacazette's centre. It was no reflection on the game, but Arsenal will not care.
2. Ramsey offers little incentive for new deal
If Aaron Ramsey wanted to persuade Arsenal that they should go the extra mile in signing him up to a new deal, this was not exactly the way to start. Ramsey went off the pitch to light applause when, shortly after the hour, he was replaced by Iwobi and shook his head in what appeared to be disagreement. This was another quiet performance from the Welshman, whose contract offer from the club was withdrawn recently, and there are few signs that he can be a pivotal player for Arsenal in the Unai Emery era.
It is hard to think of a positive contribution Ramsey made here, although he did make several runs into threatening positions without receiving possession. Arsenal are not clicking and Ramsey seems to be the obvious fall guy if Emery aims to fix their lack of fluidity. His inclusion means Ozil and Aubameyang -- a top-class creator and devastating centre-forward respectively -- are shunted to the wide positions and, if denied possession, become peripheral. That was certainly the case in the first half, when there seemed a clear case for Ozil to take the No. 10 spot as Arsenal struggled to break Watford's ranks.
The way Arsenal eventually won the game made the point crystal clear: Iwobi's introduction meant Ozil could switch inside, and all of a sudden Arsenal looked more direct and dynamic. It was those two players, in those positions, who ultimately made the difference -- and who may have made it hard for Ramsey to force his way back into the starting lineup.
Perhaps the uncertainty over his future is weighing on Ramsey; perhaps he is simply not quite the creative presence needed in a side that has tended to win games through big individual moments rather than cohesion. Either way he has never looked as dispensable as he did by full-time here.
3. Watford break the mould
There is no other side in this season's Premier League like Watford. It is not just their 4-4-2 formation, these days a throwback in itself. They perform with a singular mix of aggression and technical stability, battering and bruising their opposition while proving that they can play a bit too.
Arsenal certainly struggled with the uncompromising nature of their challenges. It was a weighty aerial tussle with centre-back Kabasele which resulted in a scramble from which Deeney's attempts to prise the ball away added insult to injury, as Cech was forced off. That came shortly after Deeney, in the 31stminute, had sent Nacho Monreal flying with a late, high tackle. He was booked and, although that was probably correct, a stricter referee might have doled out a heavier punishment. Deep into the second half he sent Lucas Torreira flying near the byline, although the Uruguyan made plenty of it, and was relieved to see Taylor rightly deem that the challenge was not worthy of a second yellow card.
In Kabasele, Deeney and the midfielder Abdoulaye Doucoure they have an imposing spine and, coming in from the flanks, the likes of Hughes and Pereyra offer genuine guile too. It was easy to see how they have made such a stir in the season's early weeks; it was hard, too, to see how they did not win here and that miss by Success, his effort seemingly spinning into the corner before drifting off target, may go down as the game's decisive piece of action.
But you sense Watford will be back. They are no Leicester City 2015-16, that much seems clear enough -- but there seems every hope that they can make a 2017-18 Burnley-style play for the European spots over the coming months.