Sunday’s Premier League clash with Watford was essentially a dead rubber for Arsenal. Their only potential gain from the final round of fixtures was the chance to move up into the soaring heights of eighth in the table.
Hardly what was hoped to be the case 37 games ago.
So all that can be achieved from the game was to build momentum ahead of the FA Cup final. A match that will define the Gunners’ season. One game. One aim.
To get to that point Mikel Arteta utilised a back three in the semi-final clash; the only way to make up for some bang average central defenders that demand all the protection they can get. Remarkably, it worked in that Manchester City clash. Very well, in fact.
David Luiz had his best game for the club, Shkodran Mustafi was distinctly more solid and Sead Kolasinac went 90 minutes without a blunder. Going forward this won’t be the approach Arteta adopts. He’s making do with what he has now. Need’s must, and all.
So when he reverted to a back four against the Hornets, it was curious to say the least. It’s duly noted that the back three is a system to use when coming up against strong attacking units, something Watford have proven themselves not to be this season. For that reason, it made sense to give it a go.
It didn’t look great, though. Like, at all.
Going forward there is always the chance of scoring with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, but Watford were well up for it at the Emirates and had the Arsenal defence on tenterhooks throughout. Running at the back four whenever they could, David Luiz and Rob Holding looked uncertain in almost everything they did, unsure of whether to push up or drop off. It had the rest of the team on edge.
Waves of Watford pressure continued throughout the first half and the Gunners never looked comfortable. That is, of course, unless the play was down the visitors’ right hand side, where the superb Kieran Tierney continued to demonstrate why the £25m spent on him was fantastic business.
Neither centre half looked close to mediocre, but Luiz was particularly woeful. Out of position at almost every opportunity, culpable when giving away his fifth penalty of the season – a Premier League record – and entirely unaware of Danny Welbeck’s movement for the second. He didn’t really put a foot right.
Apart from the finishing for the goals, there was not one positive aspect to the Gunners’ display. It all springs from the Championship level defending we’ve all grown accustomed to. Arteta knows full well, but a back three is the only way that Arsenal will stand any chance of winning football matches with the players at their disposal.
It was worth giving a go against the Hornets, but the test only lasted for 60 minutes before Arteta saw fit to revert back to the previous formula. By this point the uncertainty was already seeping throughout the side. Watford looked like scoring every time they forayed forward, with the superb work of Emi Martinez coming to Arsenal’s aid on a few occasions.
Will Arteta stick with a back three/five at Wembley? Not a hope in hell he won’t.
But the glaring deficiencies in this group of defenders once again reared their ugly heads in north London. Even if their showing against the Blues is 90% better than that, they’ll still lose. It’s going to take another tactical masterclass – a la City – for the Gunners’ season to finish as anything other than pitiful.
Watford had a whole host of excellent chances to at least snatch a draw, and you dare not think what would happen if those opportunities fell to Christian Pulisic or Olivier Giroud. Well, it’s quite easy to consider, actually… they’d score them.
The Spanish boss tried something different on Sunday and it didn’t work. He could afford to, to some degree, but at least now he’s cemented in his thoughts that this defence is truly dreadful and he’s got to do all he can to ensure they’re as undreadful as possible.
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