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Arsenal 3 - Watford 2: never in doubt

A flattering scoreline for the hosts, the Gunners bossed the match today.

Watford v Arsenal - Premier League Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images

Arsenal made it closer and nervier than it needed to be today against Watford, but they hung on for the 3-2 win. The Gunners dominated the match but were uncharacteristically shaky at the back. A win is a win and three points are three points. Arsenal have won four consecutive matches in the Premier League, are 8-1-1 in their last 10 league matches, and move into fourth in the table.

The Arsenal attack was as good today as it has been all season. and it was bangers only for goals at both ends. Martin Ødegaard and Bukayo Saka were humming down the right side all match and combined for a beautiful first goal. Ødegaard’s spinning backheel pass to spring Saka was sublime, and his finish was cool as you’d like.

Watford’s quick equalizer came on a stunning overhead volley from Cucho Hernandez that you can’t help but applaud. It was a magnificent finish. I don’t think he scores it without lax defending from Arsenal but that doesn’t take anything away from the quality of the strike.

Granit Xhaka and Cedric (and maybe Ben White) were to blame for the goal. Xhaka for not communicating / switching with Martinelli on the overlap that led to the cross, and the other Arsenal defenders for not getting tight enough to Hernandez on the finish. Pressure on the cross probably decreases its quality. Closer marking puts Hernandez off or makes his overhead a dangerous play and a whistle.

The Gunners restored their lead in short order, however. Bukayo Saka knicked the ball off Tom Cleverly in a dangerous area (shoutout to the referee for correctly not calling a phantom foul that you often see called), Alexandre Lacazette rolled a lovely backheel back to the Arsenal winger, and Saka blasted it top bins.

The Arsenal third, which proved to be the winner, was similarly lovely. Mikel Arteta helped facilitate a quick throw-in, and three or four one-touch passes later, it was in the back of the Watford net. Another Lacazette assist and another fantastic shot, this time from Gabriel Martinelli.

It could have and should have been a three-goal Arsenal lead. Alexandre Lacazette looked to have been fouled from behind in the box, and the Gunners probably should have had a penalty. The Arsenal striker did go to ground a little bit easily, but he was grabbed and kicked from behind. It’s tough to see how it wasn’t given. Chalk another one up in the “I’ve seen them given” category not going in the Gunners’ favor.

What looked to be a comfortable two-goal win turned into a one-goal, squeaky-bum-time finish. We’ve got our Arsenal back, baby. The goal came from a completely needless, terrible decision and under hit switch of play from Granit Xhaka that turned into a giveaway. Watford went over the top to Moussa Sissoko, who was maybe a bit fortunate to retain possession before finding the back of then net. Ben White closed him down decently well but also mostly missed his challenge, and the ball took two fortunate bounces to stay in Sissoko’s path.

It was an awful day for Granit Xhaka, who was bullied physically in the midfield and reverted to his former, lacking defensive awareness self. I’ve got some sympathy for him because he’s being asked to play a different, more advanced role than he has for the majority of his time at the club. But at the same time, it’s not as if Arsenal just made the switch. The formation change has been in place for several matches now, and the Gunners need more from a veteran like Xhaka. Fortunately, Xhaka managed to have one of his worst games of the season in an Arsenal win, so no harm done.

Xhaka’s new, more advanced role has also taken a toll on Kieran Tierney. He’s exposed and isolated on the left. Add to that Gabriel Martinelli’s enthusiastic but erratic defending in front of him and that Tierney is in a bit of a dip in form. The combination isn’t good.

What is good, however, is Martin Ødegaard’s run of form. He’s doing seemingly everything right and has the Arsenal attacking functioning smoothly. And the rapport that he and Bukayo Saka have established is a joy to watch. The pair scythed through the Watford left flank regularly on the afternoon.

And speaking of Bukayo Saka, he’s made the leap forward, y’all. He was easily the Man of the Match and was un-markable on the day. He’s a special player, and like Ødegaard, he’s in a fine run of form. The biggest gap in Saka’s game coming into the season was finishing. Last season, he scored five goals. He now has eight this season. Saka’s 13 goal involvements on the year is level with Sadio Mane and Diogo Jota and more than a mess of “bigger” names.

Arsenal’s goalscorers on the day are 22, 20, and 20 years old. The club have more than half of their goals scored by players 21 or younger, only the second time in Premier League history that has happened. The Gunners’ leading goalscorer is Emile Smith Rowe (who missed out today with asymptomatic COVID), who, like Saka, looks to have taken the leap forward this season by adding finishing to his game. The future of the Arsenal attack is bright and also already here. It’s magnificent.

Right now, only Manchester City and Liverpool are playing better football than Arsenal, and they are “mature” teams in win-now mode. The Gunners are a rebuilding side with the youngest starting lineup on average age in the Premier League. There is still plenty of room for improvement, too. This is really, really fun.