FFT's Best of the Premier League weekend: Arsenal, Chelsea hitting their stride
Performance of the weekend – Arsenal (vs Watford)
Arsenal were three-nil up at Vicarage Road at half-time, but that didn't really reflect their dominance – and, had it not been for a couple of smart Heurelho Gomes saves, it would have been five.
Arsene Wenger has this habit, doesn't he? When the skies above him are grey and when the surrounding mood is despondent, his teams can snap quickly into good form. Maybe not in concentrated enough surges to ever deliver on their promise, but they're still a highly contradictory club who, at times, can be at their most carefree when the burden of pressure is at its heaviest. How many punters, for instance, have had their fingers burnt in the past by betting against Arsenal for exactly those reasons?
Saturday was as impressive as it was important. After the galling loss to Liverpool and scoreless draw away to Leicester City, Watford were a natural banana skin. Walter Mazzarri is a new manager coaching a squad in flux, so better to play them now than in three months' time, but they're a stubborn, talented opponent nonetheless. And yet Arsenal cut through them ruthlessly. Santi Cazorla was highly influential, Mesut Ozil was excellent, and even Theo Walcott had some effective moments.
But it was the collective movement at the top of the formation – the weight of the passing, the off-the-ball runs – which made the performance. They looked lethal. The first goal may have been a penalty and the second slightly fortuitous, but the combinations at the top of the pitch were frequently dazzling and, as if to make that point, their third radiated with that familiar Arsenal-esque class and was the stamp on a swaggering 45 minutes.
Watford had second-half chances and might well have made the game closer than it was, but this was an essential win for Wenger. The international break is long, irritating and ultimately highly tedious, but it's a period during which negativity typically festers and had Arsenal lost – and then had 10 days to gaze on a league table showing them with a solitary point – who knows what kind of psychosis that may have bred?
Player – Eden Hazard (for Chelsea vs Burnley)
Antonio Conte inherited issues at Chelsea beyond Eden Hazard's poor form, but that is currently the one he looks closest to curing: the Belgian's influence against Burnley was near total.
[Hazard] had more touches of the ball, the most shots in the game, and by some distance made the most passes in the attacking third
The ideological starting point for Conte seems to be the creation of width. He stalked the perimeter of his technical area for all 90 minutes on Saturday, howling instructions at his players and tweaking his team's attacking shape. Chelsea operate with an extremely wide "four" at the top of the pitch, with the intention of stretching an opposing backline across the widest possible area. The result is inevitable: lots of spaces within the inside channels, plenty of opportunities for their attacking players to get to the byline or into the penalty-box, and numerical advantages all over an opponent's half.
For Hazard – against Burnley at least – it was ideal. He had more touches of the ball than any other player, the most shots in the game, and by some distance made the most passes in the attacking third.
But quoting numbers and statistics is reductive, because Hazard was more than just graphs and heat-maps. He fizzed with attacking intent at Stamford Bridge. Burnley's naiveties emboldened him and his goal owed a lot to chaotic positioning, but Hazard pulsed with a life that he hasn't had for over a year. Rather than drifting into spaces, he attacked them. Instead of drawing defenders to him and then meekly pushing possession in-field, he released the ball quickly and with real purpose.
There was a new confidence to him, certainly, but this was more substantial than a simple upturn in form. Hazard looked freer, happier, and far more eager to be his side's defining factor. Last season he was passive by default and looked like someone out of love with his profession. Not so on Saturday: he pursued the game ferociously, danced all over south-west London, and left his markers in knots. Burnley may be small fry, but he is still evidently on his way back to the top of the food chain.
A tip of the hat to Curtis Davies, Raheem Sterling and Cazorla, all of whom excelled over the weekend, but Hazard was in a rare air all of his own.
Goal of the Weekend – Mesut Ozil (vs Watford)
Not all great goals look the same and, sometimes, their appeal lies in more than just power and skill.
Ozil has been repeatedly flogged during his time in England. British football likes to celebrate its idiosyncrasies and, probably more than any other major European division, the Premier League places great stock in the game's more archaic values. This is a place for rugged intensity, for hard running, and a competition in which players are applauded for physical demonstrations of their commitment.
Placed within that context, Ozil quickly became a natural scapegoat – not generally with those who watched him in detail, but certainly among pundits, writers and supporters who view the game through a two-dimensional lens.
So his goal at Vicarage Road was a satisfying retort. Ozil doesn't need to prove himself in this country – he did that a long time ago – but the flicked header which increased Arsenal's lead was one in the eye for his detractors. It was a smart finish and the surrounding Watford players should perhaps have been more alive to his surging run, but Ozil was able to score because he was willing to outwork everyone around him.
He didn't jog into the host's penalty-area and neither did he arrive by happy accident, he got there through qualities he is often accused of lacking: determination and hard, physical work.
Mesut Ozil's incredible header goal pic.twitter.com/MKpYyvObiS
— kristen Arsenal (@kristenArsenal) August 27, 2016
The mechanics within that move have been slightly underplayed, too, possibly because Alexis Sanchez and, eventually, Ozil, made it look so simple. True, modern full-backs are now oddly reluctant to stop crosses at the source and the Chilean should maybe have been under greater pressure, but his level of execution was still frighteningly high and the timing of his delivery perfect.
Ozil would score from seven yards out, meaning that Sanchez's cross not only had to be good enough to remove four Watford defenders from the game, but also needed to remain at a shallow enough trajectory to keep Heurelho Gomes on his line. Had he driven through that ball too much, it would have been cleared. Had he cut too far underneath it, the goalkeeper would have made an easy catch. Despite the razor-thin margin for error, he placed it perfectly on Ozil’s forehead and the German barely had to check his stride.
It was quite simple and Watford's players will not enjoy Mazzarri's debrief, but it was still gloriously accurate football at its watchable, stereotype-busting best.
Save of the weekend – Lukasz Fabianski (for Swansea vs Leicester)
Fabianski really has come a long way since his punchline days at Arsenal. He was highly reliable for Swansea City last season and has grown immeasurably as a goalkeeper over the last few years.
Penalty saves are generally two-thirds luck so, while his denial of Riyad Mahrez was impressive, the save he made from Shinji Okazaki's rebound was arguably more so. Goalkeepers dedicate countless training-ground hours to making stops and then regaining their feet from a prone position – essentially, preparing for the exact situation he encountered at King Power Stadium.
True, Okazaki fired his shot straight into Fabianski's midriff and the save didn't depend on startling reflexes or any dramatic agility, but that shouldn't disguise an excellent piece of play.
The admirable detail is in the reaction time and the manner in which the Pole restricts the shooting angle: look how quickly he was back on his feet, notice how perfectly the ball fell for Okazaki, and appreciate how big Fabianski was able to make himself.
It's not stunning and it won't be appearing on highlight reels in 10 years' time, but plenty of goalkeeping coaches will use it as a reference point with their developing players.