I hate it when matches are moved to a Sunday. It completely changes the pattern of the weekend and is very disconcerting. However, the change of time for this game did have the benefit that I was able to take up the offer of hospitality for the Ashes game on Saturday. Although I must admit to checking the fixture list while on the train to the Oval, just to make sure that Watford were not playing. I was further reassured when I spotted Johnno in the queue for the coffee. I was desperate to ask him his opinion on the changes at the club but resisted as I didn’t want to spoil his day.
As usual when there is a change in routine, I wasn’t sure what time to arrive in the West Herts. I aimed for soon after 1pm and was pleased (and unsurprised) to see Don and Jacque already at our usual table. Needless to say the primary topic of conversation was the change in head coach. The departure of Javi had seemed inevitable after the Newcastle game, but it was very sad. He has left us with some very happy memories, not just of the football but of what a lovely man he was. He will always have a place in my heart. The return of Flores was a total shock. He was another lovely chap and his season was a lot of fun, but it had run out of steam in much the same way that Javi’s did, so I wondered what extra he had to offer and had been feeling a bit numb about it all last week. One benefit of his return was that we wouldn’t have to learn a new song for the head coach.
There was an added poignancy to the occasion as the game was taking place on what would have been GT’s 75th birthday, so I made the effort to say hello to his statue before the game.
Team news was that Quique had made three changes from the Newcastle game with Holebas, Capoue and Deulofeu in for Cathcart (who was injured), Janmaat and Pereyra. So the starting line-up was Foster; Femenía, Kabasele, Dawson, Holebas; Doucouré, Capoue; Hughes, Cleverley, Deulofeu; Gray. The selection caused some puzzlement among the inhabitants of the West Herts. The decision not to put Welbeck on the bench elicited a lot of comment.
But, as we took our seats in a packed Rookery to see the teams take the field to Z-cars (hoorah!), the atmosphere was very positive and the crowd was soon chanting the name of Quique Sanchez Flores.
The game started brightly enough for the Hornets who created an early chance as Deulofeu curled a shot from the edge of the box, but it was straight at Leno in the Arsenal goal. The visitors created their first chance soon after, but Özil’s free-kick was headed clear by Dawson. Watford had a great chance to take the lead in the 11th minute as Cleverley hit a powerful shot that required a flying save from Leno to keep it out. From the corner, the ball reached Cleverley again, but his curling shot was easily caught by Leno. Watford had another chance as a gorgeous cross-field pass found Deulofeu on the wing, he played in Holebas, but the shot was poor. At the other end, Guendouzi released Pépé who advanced and shot wide of the far post. The visitors took the lead in the 21st minute. Hughes appeared to be fouled in the midfield and the Watford players stopped, anticipating the whistle, while Kolašinac broke forward before finding Aubameyang who fired past Foster. While the Watford players protested, the goal was (presumably) checked via VAR and was confirmed, to loud boos from the Watford faithful. It was a devastating blow as the goal had been totally against the run of play. Sadly, as has happened far too often, this seemed to drain confidence from the Watford players and a terrible pass from Kabasele allowed the visitors to attack again, this time the shot from Aubameyang was deflected for a corner.
The Gunners were two up after 31 minutes as Özil played in Maitland-Niles, who squared for Aubameyang who had an easy tap in for his second. It was a decently worked goal, but the Watford defence had gone completely missing and the game looked lost. Watford had a chance to pull one back as Femenía crossed for Hughes, but the shot was poor and flew wide of the near post. A mistake from the visitors almost gifted the Hornets a goal, but the shot from Deulofeu was blocked and the follow-up from Gray hit the side netting. The first booking of the game went to Kolašinac for a poor foul on Hughes. Sadly, the free kick from Holebas was straight at Leno. It all looked very promising when Deulofeu went on a dangerous run, but he was pushed wide and ran out of space. Just before half time, there was a bit of handbags which led to Holebas and Guendouzi being booked. We could see that José was complaining about an elbow. TV pictures showed that this had come from Pépé, which started the melee, but the instigator escaped without punishment. The half time whistle went to a chorus of boos aimed at the officials.
At half time, I was feeling utterly miserable. A friend came for a chat. She is normally very measured and level-headed, so I was a little surprised to hear her say that we were being cheated out of the game but, judging by the half time boos, there were many that agreed with her.
I cheered up a little when Jay DeMerit appeared as the half time guest. He spoke about how the “Rise and Shine” film (on which I am credited as an Executive Producer) had led to a number of ventures including camps for youngsters that combine sporting pursuits with leadership training. It was lovely to see him back at Vicarage Road.
The second half started with a run from Femenía that finished with a cross that was an easy catch for Leno. Then Deulofeu found Hughes who, under challenge, put his shot over the bar. A promising move by the Hornets finished with a dreadful shot from Doucouré, which drifted out for a throw. The Hornets pulled a goal back on 53 minutes after a dreadful mistake from the visitors. Leno tried a short goal kick to Sokratis, he was challenged by Deulofeu, the ball broke to Cleverley who finished past Leno to raise the temperature at the (already rather warm) Vic. Suddenly all was right with the world and there was a new confidence both on the pitch and in the stands. Immediately after the goal, Flores made his first change bringing Sarr on for Gray. This would be interesting (we hoped). There was another caution for the Hornets as Femenía was booked for a foul on Özil.
Deulofeu had a great chance to level the game after cutting in from the left, but his shot was just wide of the far post. Femenía then tried his luck with a shot from the right, but it cleared the bar. Emery made his first substitution bringing Willock on for Ceballos. The visitors had a rare second half chance as Aubameyang tried a shot from distance, but it was easily dealt with by Foster. Just after the hour mark, Flores made his second change replacing Hughes with Pereyra. There was an absolutely gorgeous chance for an equaliser as Deulofeu played the ball through the legs of Guendouzi to Sarr who turned and shot just wide. He may have missed the target, but that brought a huge smile to my face. Femenía then went on a threatening run and put in a great cross, Pereyra met it with a back heel that rolled wide of the target. Arsenal made a second substitution bringing Torreira on for Guendouzi. Deulofeu had another chance to level the score, but his shot was deflected wide. The corner was deep and just too high for Kabasele whose header was wide of the target. Emery made his final substitution replacing Özil with Nelson. The substitute almost made the perfect start, but his shot from outside the area was easily gathered by Foster. There was danger for the Hornets as Doucouré lost out allowing an Arsenal break, but he redeemed himself by regaining the ball with a great tackle in the box. This allowed the Hornets to mount a break of their own which finished with a shot from Deulofeu but, again, it was straight at the keeper.
Flores made his final substitution replacing Holebas with Janmaat. Arsenal had a chance to increase their lead through a powerful shot from Torreira, but Foster was equal to it. Instead, at the other end, Pereyra was tripped by Luiz and the referee pointed to the spot. From the middle of the Rookery it appeared that the foul had taken place outside the box, so we held our breath as the referee checked with his mate at VAR headquarters, when he received the verdict and pointed to the spot we cheered, then remembered that Deeney was injured. Pereyra stepped up and placed the ball on the spot, sent Leno the wrong way and hit the back of the net sending the Watford fans wild with joy. There were nine minutes remaining at this point and the Hornets were going for the victory as Janmaat played a lovely cross to Cleverley whose shot was blocked before Deulofeu hit the rebound just wide. Cleverley then received a pass from Doucouré and hit a shot that was deflected over the bar via the head of Luiz. The corner was played out to Janmaat whose shot was high and wide. Arsenal had a rare chance as the ball was played to Xhaka at the back post but he couldn’t control. Cleverley had a shot blocked allowing Willock to break but Capoue pulled him over and was booked for his trouble. From the free kick, Willock made his way into the Watford box and I had a horrible feeling that all our heroics would be for nothing, but Kabasele was on hand to stop him shooting. There was one final chance for the Hornets to snatch the victory as Doucouré went on a tremendous run before exchanging passes with Sarr but his shot was low and easily caught by Leno.
The final whistle went to rapturous cheers. As the players applauded the crowd, Quique’s name was being sung and he responded with a broad smile and an enthusiastic wave.
There were broad smiles among the crowd who gathered at the West Herts. It seems that I wasn’t the only one who had been miserable at half time, as Jacque mentioned that she had seriously thought about going home at that point. Of course, she didn’t and was rewarded with a thoroughly enjoyable game.
The second half had been a sustained onslaught on the Arsenal goal, but I was still surprised to hear that we had 31 shots on goal, something that would have made GT very happy. It was a tremendous performance all round. Deulofeu, who I often find incredibly frustrating, had a wonderful afternoon and was a constant threat to the Arsenal defence. Pereyra was another who was on his game and was a joy to watch. Cleverley was absolutely magnificent, running the show and he deserved more than the one goal. But it was probably the introduction of Sarr that ultimately changed the game. He is clearly an incredible talent and his presence meant that there was finally an outlet for the excellent build-up play that has been a feature of most of our games this season. A couple of his moves were just a joy to watch and I am really looking forward to seeing more from him.
What a difference a couple of weeks makes. My report from Newcastle was among the most miserable that I have written, but Sunday’s game reminded me why I go to football. It was a joyous afternoon of football and showed what this team can do. Despite the slow start, I am now much more confident for the rest of the season. Well, maybe after we get the Man City game out of the way.