Arsenal lack ruthlessness more than 'cojones' as Watford defeat exposes flaws
Arsenal's 2-1 loss at Watford could be considered a surprising stumble, but recent history has made it clear that it was more than that. Arsenal still lack an away win in the league this season -- in fact they have just one point from four games on the road -- and everyone except Arsene Wenger seems to agree the team lacks something vital.
Watford striker Troy Deeney helpfully summed it up by referring to the missing part as "cojones." Martin Keown, also in the BT Sport studios, called it "ruthlessness." Every pundit, critic and fan for the last several years have at some point identified it as "leadership."
All three definitions are undoubtedly correct. We could probably add "confidence," "winning mentality," "desire," and "fight" to the list as well. Or simply perhaps the slightly longer version of: "willingness to do more than stand around watching while your opponent scores an injury-time winner."
But Keown came closest to hitting the mark. Arsenal should easily have killed off the game at Watford long before the referee handed the Hornets a lifeline with a soft penalty. Just like they should have killed off the game at Stoke long before soft defending on a counter-attack handed Mark Hughes' side a 1-0 win. A more ruthless team would even have emerged from Stamford Bridge with a triumphant, statement victory rather than a 0-0 draw last month.
Away from the comforts of the Emirates, Arsenal seem to have lost the ability to put teams away. And at the first sign of trouble, they tend to crumble.
The Gunners had 20 minutes to net a winner after Deeney's penalty levelled the score, but it was always Watford who looked more likely to score again. Even Wenger admitted his team seemed to "panic" after the equaliser and they can be accused of doing the same after conceding the first goal at Stoke and at Liverpool (where everything went wrong).
Arsenal, and especially Wenger, keep talking of having a strong mentality, but conceding the first goal seems to deflate the players' fragile egos quite quickly these days. Perhaps it's just a confidence issue, with memories of the losses at Everton, Manchester City, Crystal Palace, Chelsea and West Brom from last season bubbling up again as soon as there's a setback on the pitch.
But that brings us back to ruthlessness. Top teams like Man City make a habit of finishing off their opponents before they have a chance to get back up; Arsenal seem to live in a constant state of false security that, as long as they just keep their pretty passing moves going, the next chance will come along shortly.
The reactions from Hector Bellerin, Alex Iwobi and Mesut Ozil when they missed great chances to make it 2-0 were telling -- instead of screaming in anger or slapping the pitch in frustration, they just offered a rueful smile.
Wenger's teams have always been built around being prolific going forward rather than being solid at the back. But after eight games, the Gunners have a goal difference of just + 2. City's is + 25, after Pep Guardiola's team netted at least five goals in four of their eight games.
City are clearly a much better team than Arsenal, and have spent a lot more to build their side, but the reason they beat Watford 6-0 at Vicarage Road had much to do with the fact their second goal came just four minutes after their first. In the 7-2 win over Stoke on Saturday, the second goal came two minutes after their first. In the 5-0 win over Crystal Palace, it was seven minutes.
Mid and lower-table teams will always put up resistance against top sides as long as they're only chasing one goal, but they have a tendency to crumble once the deficit doubles.
After just one season in the Premier League, Guardiola has clearly learned that the best way to deal with those dangerous "lesser" sides is to kick them while they're down -- making sure they stay down. Arsenal used to be masters at that as well, but seem to have lost their killer instinct.
Given that the Gunners' next away trips are to Everton and Man City, they need to find those missing ingredients quickly. It already seems a lifetime ago since their 2-0 win at the Etihad in January 2015 suggested Wenger and his team had found a solution to being considered a soft touch.
Mattias is ESPN FC's Arsenal correspondent. Follow him on Twitter: @MattiasKaren.