Groundhog Day. Three weeks after the trip to the Emirates for the FA Cup match, we were back in the league. We arrived for pre match drinks to see a couple of early arrivals and, as time went on, others arrived and we gathered a good group before leaving for the game. My niece, Amelia, was present for the pre-match festivities and I looked at her surrounded by all the old folk and commented, “This is the worst part of your day.” How wrong I was.
On the tube to Arsenal, I met a former colleague. After catching up on our career moves since last we met, he asked my prediction for the game. “We won’t win.”
Arsenal’s new home is a bit of an oddity. As you emerge from Arsenal station, it feels like a proper old school ground with narrow streets and lots of food outlets, as well as the requisite ticket touts. Then you turn a corner and are faced with the bright shiny new stadium, which is an estate in and of itself. As you walk past the statues and the celebratory cladding on the stadium, you have to weave in and out of the tourists taking selfies, something that would never have happened when we were regulars in the 80s. We made our way to the away turnstiles to be greeted with a sign welcoming us. Again, I couldn’t help thinking that wouldn’t have happened in the 80s.
As we found our seats in the stand, one immediately apparent difference from the cup game was that, due to the smaller allocation, we were only allocated seats in the lower tier, which has very shallow raking and would not be my choice. Our one benefit was that we were near the corner flag so at least had some view of the game.
Team news was that Flores had made three changes bringing Prödl, Watson and Abdi in for Britos, Behrami and Jurado. So the starting line-up was Gomes, Aké, Cathcart, Prödl, Nyom, Suárez, Watson, Capoue, Deeney, Abdi and Ighalo. Former loanee, Hector Bellerin, started for the Gunners and it has been a delight to see him establishing himself in the first team as that has been a rare experience for our former loanees from the ‘Top 4’.
As the teams came out I didn’t see the Watford mascot and it was only as they were kicking about that it was apparent that Myles Deeney had accompanied his Dad on to the pitch. I was a bit disappointed that the only photo that I had was of the two of them walking away from me for the coin toss. The disappointment disappeared when I saw the photo of Myles with “Daddy 9” on his shirt. How lovely.
The Arsenal onslaught started in the first minute with the first real threat on goal being an early cross that was taken off the head of Welbeck by Cathcart. But the Gunners were ahead on 4 minutes as a cross from Iwobi found Sánchez in space, Gomes saved the header but Alexis buried the rebound. It was not a good start but, even that early in the game, it had been coming. Watford spirits rose briefly as Suárez went on a run but his cross went begging as there was nobody in the box to meet it. Arsenal had another decent chance, but this time Monreal headed a cross from Sánchez over the bar. Then Welbeck broke into the box but his shot was between the legs of Nyom, which slowed it, allowing Gomes to gather easily. Arsenal could have been two up when Welbeck played the ball back to Iwobi but his shot was stopped by a terrific save from Gomes who tipped it clear. Arsenal had yet another chance as Özil played the ball back to Welbeck whose shot was deflected just wide. So, with 15 minutes gone, the home side could have been three goals ahead. Watford finally had an attempt on goal as Deeney connected with a cross from Nyom, but the shot was straight at Ospina. Arsenal threatened again from a free kick that Sánchez curled over the wall and Gomes had to push to safety. Just before the half hour, Suárez found Deeney who played a ball over the top to Ighalo but the Nigerian was offside.
At the other end, Welbeck squared a ball for Sánchez, but Cathcart was on hand to clear. A rare foray into the Arsenal half saw Nyom cross for Abdi who was stretching to meet the ball and couldn’t manage a shot. Arsenal had completely dominated the half but, just as it appeared that we would reach half time trailing by a single goal, Sánchez received the ball in space in the Watford box before cutting it back to Iwobi who buried the ball past Gomes. Watford did try to strike back but Watson’s header down to Deeney found the striker in an offside position. Flores made a substitution just before half time as Anya replaced Capoue who, due to his history with Spurs, left the field to boos from the home fans. Arsenal had a late chance to increase their lead but Iwobi’s shot from outside the box was easy for Gomes.
It had been a terrible half for the Hornets who had shown next to nothing, but were being taken apart by an excellent Arsenal team. Last Tuesday I joined Jeff Stelling’s Men United March for Prostate Cancer UK, where we walked from Kenilworth Road to the Vic via Clarence Park. The From the Rookery End guys had arranged to meet me for an interview at half time so I had little time to brood.
Due to the interview, I missed the start of the second half. As I returned to my seat, I witnessed Anya winning a corner, but it was a poor delivery from the normally reliable Watson. Soon after Amrabat, who had replaced Ighalo at the start of the half, went on a decent run but shot wide of the near post. The home side then increased their lead as a shot from Bellerin took a nasty deflection to beat Gomes. The Gunners had a great chance to increase their lead further a couple of minutes later but Iwobi’s shot came back off the crossbar and Özil put the rebound wide. Gomes was in action again soon after as, first, a shot from Özil was saved by his feet, then a curling shot from Sánchez was parried, finally a header from Welbeck that flew straight into the keeper’s arms. There was a brief respite for Watford fans as Suárez found Amrabat, but he was at a narrow angle when he shot so it drifted out for a throw. Watford’s best chance of the game came on 56 minutes as Deeney met a Watson free kick with a header on to Prödl whose header was cleared off the line by Monreal. The clearance fell to Aké whose shot was wide of the far post. The first booking of the game went to Nyom for a kick on Özil that was borne of frustration. There was a substitution for each side on 69 minutes as Abdi made way for Guédioura while Giroud replaced Welbeck. The Arsenal substitution provoked the comment from the guys behind me that it wasn’t getting any easier.
Almost immediately there was another decent chance for the visitors as Aké crossed for Deeney who turned and unleashed a shot that required a good save from Ospina to keep his clean sheet. At the other end, an Arsenal corner was met by a header from Giroud, but Gomes was equal to it. Wenger made another change bringing Walcott on for Iwobi. Another brief moment of positivity from the visitors as a cross from Aké was met by an overhead kick by Deeney which Amrabat was just unable to reach and so the ball went out for a goal kick. Arsenal’s final change saw Campbell replacing Sanchez. Watford had been brighter since the break and Amrabat came charging into the Arsenal box with Anya alongside him, but his pass was disappointingly short and went out for a goal kick. Elneny stopped a break by Amrabat and was booked for his trouble. Watson played the free kick short to Guédioura whose shot was deflected wide. From the corner, Guédioura hit a shot from distance that went just wide of the near post. Another Watford chance went begging as a cross fom Amrabat reached Anya, who opted to head back across goal instead of trying to hit the target and the ball was cleared. Arsenal scored their fourth goal on 90 minutes as Campbell crossed for Walcott who finished past Gomes.
It was a relief for the travelling support when the final whistle went and, despite the poor performance, the players were applauded off with chants of “Wemberley” ringing in their ears. It is hard to critique a game like that as, bad as Watford were, they were playing an Arsenal team who were on fire and, we were never going to be able to compete with that. Arsenal had shown plenty of skill in our cup game, but there had been a lack of organisation and leadership. In this game, they fought for everything and their passing was incisive, meaning we had no chance. As an Arsenal fan, you would have to ask why they couldn’t have put that performance in during the cup game, which was their last realistic chance of silverware.
We walked back down the Caledonian Road to convene for our post match drinks. The game had not been fun to watch, but it was never one that we would expect to win so there were no recriminations. It was the first real tonking that we had experienced and that fact alone makes this season a success so far. I was also interested to note that, despite complaints of recent relegation form (and it has been awful), there are still three teams below us in the table who have a worse record over the last 10 games. So, while we can’t be complacent, relegation still looks highly unlikely and we have a cup semi-final to look forward to. However you look at this, it remains our most successful season since the 80s.