The FourFourTwo Preview: Watford vs Arsenal
Fairly powerful force meets quite-tough-to-move object.
- B’mouth 1-1 Watford (Prem)
- Watford 0-1 Palace (Prem)
- Newcastle 1-2 Watford (Prem)
- Watford 1-0 Swansea (Prem)
- Man City 2-0 Watford (Prem)
- Arsenal 3-0 Man Utd (Prem)
- Arsenal 2-3 Olympiakos (CL)
- Leicester 2-5 Arsenal (Prem)
- Spurs 1-2 Arsenal (LC)
- Chelsea 2-0 Arsenal (Prem)
While their current standing of 12th is elevated by the ineptitude of clubs likely to resurrect themselves in due course, Watford can welcome one of the country's most thrumming attacks with well-founded self-belief: no side in the league has conceded fewer goals than Quique Sanchez Flores's men so far this term.
Up top, things are running slightly less smoothly – no team has scored fewer, either – although Odion Ighalo has broken little sweat translating his form from last season’s 20-goal campaign into the top tier. The Nigerian has the most goals in this calendar year of anyone in England's top four divisions, with his five this term as much a product of the fine understanding between he and skipper Troy Deeney as his own dead-eyed finishing.
It’s early days yet, but Flores may just have hit upon the magic formula sought by every promoted side: a batch of players hungry to establish themselves as top-flight citizens, and complemented by a smattering of those who already boast the know-how of the division. In the latter category we can count Etienne Capoue and Heurelho Gomes, both of whom are quietly rehabilitating reputations diminished at Spurs with performances of notable leadership and class, most obviously manifested in the keeper’s heroics against Bournemouth last time out.
Over in Islington, the international break could hardly have come at a worse time. Arsenal’s putrid European outings may have left their hopes hinging on the mercy of Europe's most ruthless striker, but domestically things are looking rather rosier in light of the shellacking that was merrily administered to Manchester United a fortnight ago.
In time-honoured Arsenal fashion, Wenger’s men pulled a big result out of the bag just at the moment the team was teetering on the brink of an authentic crisis. Less typical, though, was how they exerted genuine dominance against a heavyweight opponent in a high-pressure game.
Alexis Sanchez may have led the charge, but it was the displays of Arsenal's horde of eternal nearly-men that made the win possible – all rising manfully to the occasion rather than performing their usual trick of dutifully withering in its shadow. Theo Walcott pressed, harried and spearheaded the attack with waspish menace; Francis Coquelin and Santi Cazorla struck the perfect balance of steel and silk in the engine room. And most gasp-worthy of all, Mesut Ozil imposed himself in a way he often seems steadfastly determined not to, gliding into the final third time and again to plant himself at the centre of his side's attacks and orchestrate United's destruction.
No new injury concerns for Wenger, who will have been relieved to see Sanchez return from international duty in full working condition. Laurent Koscielny has a “slight chance” of returning after a hamstring strain, according to his boss, while Mikel Arteta and Mathieu Flamini could both recover from knocks in time for involvement.
Flores’s selection will depend on whether Ikechi Anya has weathered the calf problem which kept him out of Scotland’s fatal qualifying fixtures. If fit, he could be selected at either left-back or on the wing; if not, Nathan Ake will certainly keep his place at full-back. Valon Behrami and Allan Nyom are expected to overcome respective calf and knee knocks.
Key battle: Sanchez vs Nyom and Prodl
After a relatively dry spell during which he'd only managed nine goals in 40 appearances for club and country, the strapping Chilean's output has risen sharply of late – to nine in his last five. It’s no surprise that Arsenal’s burgeoning revival has coincided neatly with Sanchez’s return to form: his supporting cast may have upped their game to overcome Manchester United but there remains no doubt as to who takes star billing. Sanchez is both Arsenal’s talisman and catalyst.
Against United, Sanchez made an art form of drifting into profitable positions from his nominal outpost on the left. His two goals showed how he can summon a finish of either clout or craft.
It will be largely up to the right-sided duo of Watford’s back four to keep him quiet. Which makes it a good thing that the pair in question have been two of the side’s best performers so far this year, having missed just 34 minutes of league football between them on their debut seasons in England. The imposing Nyom has been a model of consistency from right-back, Prodl organising with authority from the middle, and – with the exception of allowing Glenn Murray to ghost in for his goal a fortnight ago – not a mistake between them.
LAST FIVE MEETINGS
- Watford 1-2 Arsenal (PL, Dec 06)
- Arsenal 3-0 Watford (PL, Oct 06)
- Watford 2-4 Arsenal (FAC, Jan 02)
- Watford 2-3 Arsenal (PL, Apr 00)
- Arsenal 1-0 Watford (PL, Sep 99)
Upon his appointment in the summer, Flores was Watford's fifth manager in a year but that's not to say his side have showed any sign of instability. The Spaniard – despite looking like he’s about to grumpily diagnose a rare bone disease before hobbling down the tunnel with a walking stick – has fashioned a well-drilled, pacey team, and with much room still left for improvement.
His counterpart on Saturday was understandably gleeful after the recent disposing of United, even if the result wasn't quite as instructive as he made out. "It gives a strong answer to all the questions that were raised during the week," Wenger said, ignoring that the truest answer is to prevent them being raised in the first place. The Frenchman is right about one thing though, at least for the time being: "To win in a big game is always a statement and we are in it [the title race]."
Facts and figures
- Watford have never won a Premier League game in the month of October (D4 L5).
- Petr Cech has the best save percentage in the Premier League this season (82%, minimum 5 saves).
- Heurelho Gomes has made 14 punches this season, 5 more than any other Premier League keeper.
More FFT Stats Zone facts
Watford may prove tough to break down but Arsenal rarely falter against bottom-half opponents. 0-2.