Momentum is a funny concept. Besides looking at the form table, there’s no way to really quantify it but unlike some of the false dawns in the last 3 years where metrics and results haven’t quite aligned, Arsenal taking 20 points from the last 24 isn’t thanks to a run of luck. Yesterday was the first time in a long time where I felt Arsenal played like a truly dominant home team playing against a team they knew they should be beating.
The win might have felt hard fought in the dying stages but the reality is on another day, Watford would have been given a hiding – especially if Kevin Friend had the slightest idea what he was doing and Ben Foster wasn’t playing a blinder. While Aubameyang’s somewhat predictable penalty was still well saved, the save at close range from Gabriel’s header would go into any decent keeper’s highlight reel. Arsenal’s 6 fouls were condemned by 4 yellow cards, some of which were perfectly valid. I wouldn’t have an issue with this if Watford were punished in kind, but their 19 fouls drew only 4 yellow cards including the second yellow. The strangely rotund Danny Rose was able to perform a flying clothesline on Lacazette without punishment and given it wasn’t a denial of a clear goal-scoring opportunity, the double jeopardy rule for penalties and red cards wouldn’t have applied. He was also able to cynically trip Saka much in the same way that say Tomiyasu carded but once again got away with it, and getting away with it just about summed up Watford’s afternoon.
We needn’t have worried though, because it turns out karma is delicious. Feigning injury and putting the ball out of play to try and regain some territory and have a breather really isn’t grounds for complaint, as much as the Premier League’s elder statesman was keen to deflect from his side’s agricultural approach to football. And if you’re still unconvinced:
If I’m scraping the barrel for silver linings to Friend’s incompetence, it’s a real testament to Tomiyasu and Lokonga’s diligence and maturity that they were able to play out the rest of the game without issue after picking up early bookings. Had Watford been given equal treatment, the game would have afforded Arsenal more breathing space with virtually every Watford player walking on eggshells.
With the contentious issues out of the way, I’m just happy to have watched another near-perfect performance and save for the off-colour Aubameyang, there were no players out there didn’t deserve plaudits. It’s becoming a theme that players coming into the side as “back-up” can still make a difference; Nuno Tavares makes it impossible to look away and as much as it pains me that he’s replaced Kieran Tierney, he’s currently outperforming the Scot based on this season’s performances and I see no reason why he should immediately come back into the team on seniority or preference alone. I was critical in Arteta’s approach to meritocracy when Willian was trundling around the place and the only way Tierney’s immediate reintroduction could be justified is on tactical grounds. There’s a case to be made for that given our next opposition and with Mohamed Salah comfortably the best player in the world at the moment, I’d be inclined to favour the more experienced of the two. There may even be a case for playing both of them on the day, which I wouldn’t be against.
Dear Ainsley was another to step up to the plate at the last minute and I didn’t think a Man of the Match performance was on the cards. I always sympathised with his indignation at being played “out of position”, as good as he was when he was called upon at full back. What I didn’t want to happen was to see a talented Hale Ender leave for another club just because he wasn’t patient enough. Whatever’s happened behind the scenes, he seems well and truly on board with the project now with the public cry for help on Instagram behind him and I’m sure seeing the other academy prospects flourishing is partly to thank. My concern with his ability in the middle was always his security on the ball, as well as what he could offer going forward. The athleticism and defensive responsibility was never in doubt but the demands of the position are crucial to make everything else tick. Filling Thomas Partey’s boots is no small feat, especially when he had an equally inexperienced partner next to him, but there was no need to hide – not that he’s ever been one to do so anyway if his penalties are anything to go by. I think he’s finally made a case for himself in the long term and weening ourselves off the Mohamed Elneny’s of the world is another step in the right direction when it comes to squad building.
While I didn’t mention him by name earlier, it wouldn’t be right to not mention Smith Rowe now, because he continues to treat the Premier League like his stomping ground. It’s coming up on a one year since he came into the side proper and the rise has been just as fierce as Saka’s. It’s strange how players find their openings; in Saka’s case, we needed someone to fill in at left back and as highly rated as he was at youth level, you never know what a player is going to be like when they make the senior step. Smith Rowe was a job-saving gamble when Arsenal and Arteta were out of options and every time he’s played since, Arsenal have had a fighting chance. This season he’s a different animal, with the “end product” demands turning him to the green light of greed but his contributions in front of goal continue to win Arsenal points and he is growing into the number on his back. That’s about as much as we can ask for and the only lingering fear was whether Odegaard would crowd him out. In actuality, it’s been the latter who’s had to fight his way back into the team and ply himself in a variety of positions because Smith Rowe is busy making himself a Pires-shaped nest on the left wing.
Elsewhere, Ben White and Gabriel were imperious again in the middle, as were the two fullbacks and besides the Ramsdale scare, Watford were living off scraps. With Liverpool up next and after their loss to West Ham, I’m still slightly worried about how they’ll “make amends”. Arsenal’s last outing of this calibre was a 5-0 loss to City and while I’m sure another scoreline like that won’t be on the cards, I’d hate to see a defeat put a dent in this side’s expectations. With any luck, the recent run of form and subsequent effect on the league table has moved the goalposts of this season’s aspirations and seeing a team like West Ham, on a closer footing to Arsenal’s, go toe to toe with Liverpool and win should be grounds for some hope. Everything will have to be right on the day to get a result and in many ways, it’s coming at a good time. Arteta will be a busy man over the international break and the main thing I’ll be looking for is competitiveness because then we would still have progress.