Arsenal’s 2-2 draw to Watford has left a bitter taste in the mouths of supporters. The Gunner’s display in the second half exposed worrying signs about the state of squad early on in the campaign. Away draws are nothing to lose sleep over. The greatest clubs in the Premier League come up short against opposition. These poor displays, however, are marked as an outlier with a comfortable reassurance that its occurrence is rare. That is not the case with Arsenal, however, and even just five matches into the season pessimism might creep back into a club that has worked so hard to eradicate its presence.
Arsenal’s direct downfall against Watford was the result of two mistakes from Sokratis and David Luiz. A team can have a dangerous attack flush with creative clinical players, but if the defensive line is unable to keep the opposition’s attack at bay, trouble will always be lurking around the corner.
Defense is a critical weakness in the Arsenal squad. That is why the club went out and purchased Kieran Tierney, William Saliba, and David Luiz. Unfortunately, Tierney is on his way back from a groin injury, Saliba is on loan with Saint Etienne and is also injured, and Luiz has been prone to frustrating errors in the past.
The defensive line employed by Emery on Sunday is certainly not his first choice. The absence of Hector Bellerin is being felt in a significant way as Ainsley Maitland-Niles continues to struggle playing out of position. Rob Holding should easily find himself taking precedence over either Sokratis or David Luiz. Tierney, who is a more defensively minded fullback than Sead Kolasinac, should stymie wide attacking threats. As a result, Arsenal are essentially playing without three of their four first team defensive players.
These absences should theoretically ease concerns of Arsenal’s defensive frailties, but the mistakes that cost Arsenal two points on Sunday go far deeper than simply poor execution.
Unai Emery was lauded as an exceptional tactician. He supposedly spent hours studying film of previous games. The Spaniard found incredible success with La Liga side Sevilla winning three consecutive Europa League titles. He moved on to PSG where he won Ligue 1, but came up short in the Champions League while finding it difficult to handle the personalities of the club’s star players. The crux of the current inquest with Emery has been the thing that got him the Arsenal job in the first place, tactics.
Arsenal have made a mess of playing out of the back showcasing an exposé of the dangers of playing with the ball so close to your goal. This trend has caught on in the Premier League and the logic behind its rise is intuitive. This build up play aims to ensure possession while drawing the opposition in thus opening up passing lanes to exploit with lethality.
Sunday’s performance highlighted that such a strategy requires players that can actually implement that style of play as well as a manager that knows when is the time to employ that tactic. Watford and Quique Sanchez Flores quickly picked up on this opportunity and instantly began to pressure Arsenal in their own half. The Arsenal players struggled to cope with the pressure and, according to Granit Xhaka, the players became “scared.”
Scared is not a term that you would want to associate with a team whose starting lineup has an average age of 26. These are professional athletes, and the only reason for being timid in the heat of a match is the result of being uncomfortable with how you’re playing. This could be down to an unfamiliarity with the tactics or knowing that the players just don’t possess the skill set required. Either way, the fact that Unai Emery failed to adjust this strategy after taking a 2-0 lead is worrying.
Playing out of the back away from home while being two goals up is cause for trouble. At that point what does the home team have to lose? Watford knew Arsenal’s weakness and exposed it for all to see but Emery failed to adjust. There was no plan B for Arsenal or at least a response to salvage a draw. Watford could have easily won the match given a few more minutes.
Arsenal have surrendered the most shots of any Premier League side this season. The 23 second half shots for Watford tied the most ever recorded in their Premier League history. Just imagine if Troy Deeney was on the field. Based on the amount of opportunities for Watford even a depleted striking force should have won the match against Arsenal.
Pierre Emerick Aubameyang who recorded a brace for the Gunners had harsh words for his side,
“Obviously we didn’t expect that (comeback).”
“Sadly, we were not able to deal with them well. I feel like we are giving goals to the opposition, it is up to us to progress in that respect.”
Emery was in a difficult situation in regards to substitutions after Watford scored their first goal off of Sokratis’s error. Matteo Guendouzi was substituted for Lucas Torreira in the 67th minute. Guendouzi was one of the only physically imposing players on the pitch, but a dust up just before halftime left him with a yellow card. It was too much of a risk to keep him on the pitch.
Daniel Ceballos was taken off seven minutes prior leaving many Arsenal fans scratching their heads. His impact was evident and Ceballos was one of the only few players who offered Arsenal dominance in the midfield. The immediate thought was he sustained an injury. Instead, Emery provided a peculiar reason for Ceballos’s substitution,
“It was very very hot. We needed some fresh players in the second half.”
“We were struggling in the second half and I was thinking how can we improve with three players, fresh players, to give us more energy and also give us more capacity physically, tactically, and technically.”
Mesut Ozil was taken off in the 71st minute most likely due to the fact it was his first Premier League appearance of the season.
What was troubling about Emery’s substitutions was none of them addressed the issue at hand. Perhaps adding another center back like Calum Chambers would not only have offered protection for Maitland-Niles but also enabled David Luiz to play as the middle cog in the back line. Lucas Torreira failed to make a substantial impact upon his arrival in the game.
The Gunners are still lacking a workhorse in the midfield. At first, Xhaka was brought in to take on this role followed by Lucas Torreira. What is clear time and again is that neither of these two players have taken hold of that vital position. A true anchor midfielder is needed to help Arsenal when they are out of possession. This is really no fault of Emery and with limited reliable options on the bench it is a situation that will unlikely change until a proper player is brought in.
Emery has many questions to answer over the coming weeks. There are rumblings of discontent from senior players. The lack of a coherent strategy that so many fans, pundits, and journalists have criticized might be a sentiment held by the players.
At the end of the day it is still early in the season, but as is often the case two points dropped can make all the difference. This is a missed opportunity for Arsenal reminiscent of performances by Arsenal sides of the last decade. Emery’s job is not on the line now and it shouldn’t be the case. His goal is to return the team back to the Top 4 and they still have a good chance of achieving that result, and Arsenal are also strong contenders to win the Europa League.
There are tremendous worrying signs, however, that continue to crop up. Emery needs to put those concerns to bed as best he can, and has no choice but to show that he is the man to lead the team forward. Otherwise he runs the risk of losing the support of his players before he loses the backing of the fans and those above him.