Arsenal go in search of a third consecutive Premier League win today (Saturday) as they travel to Vicarage Road to take on Watford.
The Gunners will be hoping to quickly recapture the form and momentum that saw them collect back-to-back wins over Brighton and West Brom leading up to the international break, and a clash with an improved but ultimately inconsistent Watford side should give them the chance to do just that.
Arsene Wenger’s side have shown signs of growing cohesion since the now infamous 4-0 drubbing at the hands of Liverpool what seems like an eternity ago, and, in truth, should have more than enough for the Hornets if they can slip back into that disciplined, clinical mindset.
It is worth remembering, however, that Watford have picked up two wins from their last four meetings with Wenger’s men, with last season’s 2-1 victory at the Emirates on January 31 proving to be enormously damaging for Arsenal it sent the team spiralling into its annual mid-winter crisis.
In the wake of that particular defeat, Troy Deeney, Watford’s generously proportioned front man, was quick to point out that his side ruthlessly exposed Arsenal’s mental fragility and, while he struck a nerve with fans, he was absolutely spot on in his assessment.
The team was weak and, when put under sustained pressure, crumbled in precisely the manner Deeney and his team mates suspected they would.
There is no doubt in my mind that Watford – at home and under the floodlights – will be looking to do exactly the same again this evening. They know that a raucous atmosphere, some blood and thunder, and plenty of pressure, can often cause Arsenal to crack and they would be foolish not to try that same trick this time around.
Teams of Watford’s calibre can often narrow the gap in quality between themselves and the bigger teams by employing such tactics, and Arsenal can be especially vulnerable to it.
The best way to tackle this is for Arsenal to play quickly and play aggressively, with an emphasis on cutting out the cheap turnovers and unforced errors.
Unlike in previous seasons, Watford have found a ruthless streak in front of goal this time around, with 11 goals scored in seven matches, including three goals against Liverpool. Arsenal have also scored 11 in seven.
Clearly, the hosts will be a much more dangerous proposition in front of goal and our tendency to cede chances to the opposition could prove costly.
However, in the last month or so, the Gunners have been a much tighter in defence, with four clean sheets in their least five fixtures in all competitions pointing to greater discipline.
But complacency has so often been an enemy of Wenger’s men and they cannot afford to switch off for so much as a minute if they hope to keep picking up points.
It is worth bearing in mind that Watford have also conceded 12 goals in seven matches, meaning there will be opportunities for the Gunners to test the home goalkeeper. Key to victory will be cashing in on those opportunities early, in order to take the sting out of the home side.
In terms of selection, the absence of Shkodran Mustafi presents the boss with a defensive dilemma, namely whether he picks Rob Holding or Per Mertesacker to step into the gap left in an important area. Personally, I think either would be suitable, though Holding has more minutes under his belt this season. There remain question marks over the fitness of Laurent Koscielney and Sead Kolasinac as well, but the indications are that both should be ok to take to the field at Vicarage Road.
There is also a question mark over whether Mesut Ozil returns to the side if he is fit, or whether Arsenal persist with the improving Alex Iwobi in the creative number 10 role. For me, I would stick with Iwobi for this evening, and re-introduce Ozil to the side for the upcoming Europa League fixtures.
The Nigerian’s greater emphasis on completing his defensive duties gives him the edge in my book, a feature that could prove particularly important against a Watford side that will be looking to get on the front foot.
In an ideal world, Arsenal will win this game at a canter, and collect another clean sheet to boot. Though things never quite pan out so smoothly in the real world, there are no real excuses for the Gunners not to get the job done today. To do so would be a big backwards step at a time when the team is finally starting to show signs of improvement.