Arsenal rushed out to a 3-0 lead in an excellent first half then did enough to hang on for the 3-1 win in a more difficult second period. It was a promising performance that will hopefully go some way to bolstering confidence before the international break.
Ozil was deemed fit enough to start after his impressive cameo against Leicester. Cazorla dropped into the deeper midfield role alongside Xhaka. Otherwise the side was the same as the Leciester game.
Walter Mazzarri stuck with his favored 3-5-2 from the start. Younés Kaboul made his Watford debut at right center back with Craig Cathcart out with a thigh injury. Christian Kabasele played left center back with Miguel Britos missing because his partner was due to give birth. Sebastian Prödl played in the middle of the back three. Nordin Amrabat and José Holebas played right and left wing back respectively. Valon Bahrami played at the base of midfield with Adlène Guédioura to his right and Etienne Capoue to his right in the shuttling midfield roles. Odion Ighalo and Troy Deeney partnered up front.
Sanchez as striker pays off this week
Sanchez had not looked particularly good as a lone striker in our first two matches and I was admittedly frustrated when I saw the team selection with him leading the attack and Giroud left on the bench. But credit to Wenger- if Sanchez's selection up front was a tactical one it was an intelligent decision. In Prödl, Kaboul and Kabalese Watford had three tall, lumbering center backs well equipped to deal with a physical striker like Giroud but too slow to deal with a pacey, mobile striker like Sanchez.
Alexis continually drifted to the left channel in the space behind the wing back Amrabat and outside of the right center back Kaboul to create overloads with Oxlade-Chamberlain. I mentioned in the preview to this match that Chelsea had found some joy in that area of the pitch last weekend against Watford and it looked like we had clearly done our homework and set out with a plan to exploit that space. With Watford in a 3-5-2 it meant the wing backs were the only ones defending the wide areas of the pitch. We could therefore create overloads on their wing backs with either our fullbacks joining the attack or with Ozil and Sanchez drifting wide into the channels. We did this to great effect in the opening 45 minutes.
Our stunning third goal came when Oxlade-Chamberlain collected a pass from Koscielny near the left touch line with Amrabat on him. Alexis pulled wide and made an overlapping run outside Ox. He collected the ball in plenty of space in the channel to pick his head up and provide a perfectly weighted cross to Ozil making a run into the box from deep in midfield.
The left side of the graphic below shows passes received by Alexis. Notice the cluster near the left touch line where he was working to create those overloads. The right side shows his passes in the attacking third.
I thought another key to Alexis's success up front was that we had players making penetrating runs in behind the defense from deeper areas. When he starts in a central role Alexis likes to come deep to get on the ball and look to create. Too often when he does this we don't have players making vertical runs behind him to stretch the defense. This means the opposition defense can sit deeper and allow all of our movement to happen in front of them. Yesterday we did a solid job of making those forward runs beyond Alexis when he came back to get on the ball. The second and third goal are both excellent examples.
For the second Alexis received a long ball from Monreal in the left channel and did brilliantly to hold off Kaboul. Ozil moved beyond him to collect a pass in the middle of the pitch. Bellerin then did well to break forward quickly and provide an overlapping run on the inside right. He played wide to Walcott whose driven ball to the back post was excellent. Sanchez showed his usual work rate to not give up on the move and made nearly a 50 yard run after his initial pass to Ozil to finish the move.
The third offers an even better example. When Alexis collects on the left channel rather than staying in midfield and waiting for the ball to swing back his way, Ozil takes a chance and sprints 35 or so yards into the box to provide someone for Alexis to aim at.
Watford attack through the channels
In their opening two fixtures against Southampton and Chelsea Watford's main form of attack was to get the ball wide to Amrabat and hit crosses towards the back post. Today was no different. They've lacked a creative enough player in midfield to build play with controlled possession so instead look to get it in the channels early and wreak havoc on the opposition penalty box.
I didn't think we did a particularly good job of cutting off the supply of these crosses from Amrabat. Oxlade-Chamberlain was poor defensively and time and again Monreal became overloaded down their right channel, particularly after Mazzarri introduced Pereyra in the second half and switched to 4-4-2 with Amrabat playing a traditional right winger position. Pereyra played on the inside right and continually collected possession and drove forward. Amrabat provided overlapping runs and kept getting the ball in space outside of Monreal.
The second half was too uncomfortable and we were maybe a bit fortunate not to concede a second which would have made for a nervy finish. We did enough to get over the line away from home, which is great, but if we’re nitpicking you’d maybe like to see us control that second half a bit more.
Cazorla-Xhaka partnership provides control in possession
After a really poor substitute appearance in our opener against Liverpool and what I thought was a mixed performance against Leicester, Xhaka was excellent today. He hit a few delicious diagonals into the channels and overall his passing was quick and incisive. Xhaka completed 87.3% of his passes after just 79% last week. He was apparently going to start on the bench in place of Coquelin but a late knock to the French midfielder meant Xhaka was given the nod. He doesn’t provide the defensive shield Coquelin does but against weaker opposition like Watford who will force us to break them down patiently I think Xhaka is probably a better answer.
The performance today showed the value of having three gifted passers of the ball in the middle of midfield, particularly against inferior opposition. The interplay between Cazorla and Xhaka at the base of midfield and Ozil further up the pitch was excellent at times. All three can get the ball out of their feet with one touch and make a quick pass. We were able to circulate possession quickly to get the Watford defense out of balance.
Cazorla is underrated as a deeper lying midfielder. His ability to keep possession in tight areas and spin off of defenders to get the space to find a forward pass often get us out of dangerous positions when the opposition is pressing higher up the pitch. His passing accuracy is wonderful. He completed 92.3% of his passes and 20 of 23 in the attacking third. His set piece delivery can also be a real threat. The Elneny-Coquelin and Coquelin Xhaka double pivot partnerships we saw in the first two matches don’t provide the same tempo and assuredness on the ball you get when Cazorla is in his deeper role.
Finally, Ozil proved just how important he is to our attacking play. He was involved in all three goals, providing the chip that Alexis was fouled on for our opening penalty, offering a pass to Alexis and playing a pass to Bellerin in the build up to Alexis’s goal, and scoring the third himself. His creativity and vision make Arsenal an entirely different team than we are without him.
Some of the football we played in the first half was as pleasant on the eye as you’re likely to see anywhere. I’d maybe like to see our game management improve- the second half was too frenetic- but overall it was a good performance that we can look to build on. You wish we could keep the momentum going without the two week break. Back to the Emirates for Southampton next.