Result: Watford 0-1 Arsenal
Competition: Premier League
Date: 15th April 2019
Venue: Vicarage Road
Starting XI: Leno, Mustafi, Koscielny, Mavropanos, Monreal, Torreira, Xhaka, Mkhitaryan, Ramsey, Iwobi, Aubameyang
Subs: Cech, Maitland-Niles, Kolasinac, Elneny, Guendouzi, Ozil, Lacazette
Arsenal bolstered their chances of a Premier League top four finish as they laboured to a 1-0 victory against ten-man Watford. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang grabbed the vital goal as he forced an error from Ben Foster on 10 minutes before Troy Deeney was given his marching orders two minutes later for an elbow on Lucas Torreira. The Gunners had chances to extend their lead before and after the break but in the end settled for a first clean sheet of the season away from home.
Ahead of Thursday’s clash with Napoli in Italy, Unai Emery was always going to rotate his side, however, few predicted the inclusion of Dinos Mavropanos – making his first Premier League start of the season – and a switch to a back four with Shkodran Mustafi at right-back. In the absence of the suspended Sokratis, Laurent Koscielny and Nacho Monreal made up the rest of the defence. In midfield, Granit Xhaka returned from a groin problem to partner Lucas Torreira with Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Aaron Ramsey and Alex Iwobi charged with providing the ammunition for Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. Mesut Ozil and Alex Lacazette had to settle for places on the bench.
A nervy start by the Gunners that included Mavropanos missing a header and Bernd Leno being forced to kick out for a throw under pressure from Andre Gray seemed to suggest that this was going to be another horrible night on the road. And then Watford miraculously self-destructed.
In the space of three hilarious minutes, we not only scored courtesy of a goalkeeping howler but our arch-nemesis, Troy Deeney, was given his marching orders.
It all kicked-off on 9 minutes when Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang sniffed a chance to close down a square ball played to Ben Foster. Chasing down from behind he forced a panicked clearance from the keeper that clattered off his heels and back into the net. His determination handsomely rewarded, Auba picked himself up off the turf and performed a celebratory flip for the nearby Gooners. (1-0)
Almost immediately, came the second plot twist. A clearly revved up Troy Deeney, who’d earlier accused Granit Xhaka of diving, waved an arm in Torreira’s face as he chased past the Uruguayan in the middle of the pitch. The linesman spotted the incident and referee Craig Pawson wasted no time reaching for his red card. The Watford captain couldn’t believe it. Off he trudged.
Enjoying the moment, the travelling Gooners goaded the incensed home crowd. “We’re winning away, we’re winning away, how shit must you be, we’re winning away.” Aubameyang nearly had a second but his first time effort from an Iwobi cross was deflected wide.
A goal up and with a man advantage we really should have wrestled control of the game, but for the rest of the half we laboured as the Hornets, playing free of any expectations, came at us full pelt.
A long free-kick to the back post fell to Cathcart who forced a fine save from Leno. Not long after, Monreal dug out Mavropanos with a last-ditch clearance after the Greek tried and failed to clear out Gray.
At this point, the home crowd sensed that every decision was going against them. It was therefore very amusing that Leno’s push on Gray at a corner went unpunished. The atmosphere provoked a spell of kamikaze football from the Hornets who kept surging forward. We looked to pick them off on the break but Foster was equal to Iwobi’s effort.
After Torreira tripped Will Hughes on the edge of the box, Leno produced another great stop, this time at full stretch to his left, to deny Capoue’s free-kick.
Looking for more composure on the ball in the middle of the park, Unai Emery took Torreira out of the firing line at half time and sent on Mesut Ozil on in his place. It seemed to have the desired effect as we created three gilt-edged chances before the hour mark.
First Aubameyang failed to connect with an Iwobi cross, then Mkhitaryan squandered two efforts from close range after great build-up play. The first really was a bad miss, coming from just two yards out with only Foster to beat. The England international somehow got the ball out for a corner with his feet.
The introduction of Matteo Guendouzi for Mavropanos – sensible given the Greek looked far from comfortable – saw us switch to a 3-4-3 formation and we immediately looked shaky again. Adam Masina clipped the bar from 30-yards with a rasping effort and only a poor touch stopped Andre Gray from being one-on-one with Leno. The game was being played at a frantic pace.
The experiment with three defenders didn’t last too long as Maitland-Niles came on for Ramsey to take up the right-back slot. With substitute Isaac Success causing trouble, we looked torn between sitting back and pushing forward.
Aubameyang missed another chance from close range, hitting a Mkhitaryan cross to the near post high and wide, and Xhaka stung Foster’s palms with a curler from the edge of the box.
As Sky reminded fans watching at home that Arsenal hadn’t kept a clean sheet away from home, Gray rounded Leno and looked destined to tuck home. Maitland-Niles slid to the rescue. A Hughes header over the bar with 8 minutes remaining was another shot across the bow.
Aubameyang should have killed the game but after a fine dart into the box his finish was again lacking. To add to our frustrations, Guendouzi, on the break, fluffed a chance to play in Ozil who was standing in acres of space at the back post. Thankfully, our profligacy didn’t matter as we closed out the win.
The result takes us up to fourth in the table, one point behind Sp*rs. Next, we go to Naples before Palace visit the Emirates on Sunday. If we can win that one as well, we’ll really be in a solid place heading into the final three games of the season. Here’s hoping.