And with that, another Premier League season comes to a close. While Arsenal managed to score 3 goals, it was a sleepy performance as the Gunners had plenty of moments that suggested the game was truly a formality to them. Arsenal managed to move up to 8th place with the result, a spot worth an extra £5.4m, but it was less than an emphatic finish to a campaign every Arsenal supporter will be glad has ended.
Almost a complete 12 months, 3 different managers, what felt like as many injury issues as possible, inconsistencies, moments of success, and moments of frustration. Earlier in the week, Arteta talked about how the table doesn’t lie and it is hard to argue with that this year. 14 wins, 14 draws, 10 losses for a total of 56 points. 56 goals scored and 48 conceded for a differential of +8.
The stats encapsulate the slightly above average to very average level of play from Arsenal throughout the course of the year, but somehow the team has managed to give themselves the opportunity to end on an extremely high note with an FA Cup final. As every fan is aware, this gives the Gunners a chance to end the season with silverware, give Mikel his first piece of silverware, a reward he may deserve for creating some semblance of quality out of this side, and qualification for the Europa League, which could go a long way for the team during this critical transfer window.
To get ready for this, Arsenal had a match against relegation scrapping Watford. In my prematch look ahead, I quoted Arteta suggesting that he would put out a strong lineup, but that didn’t mean players who had not gotten much time throughout the campaign wouldn’t feature. I took this to mean we would see another very rotated lineup, something that turned out to be very incorrect.
Arsenal: Martinez, Maitland-Niles, Holding, Luiz, Tierney, Xhaka, Willock, Ceballos, Pepe, Aubameyang, Lacazette
It was a very strong selection from Mikel with plenty of names we can expect to feature in the final on August 1st. The major point of conversation was the return to a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 formation after playing multiple games within a 3-4-3 set up. Arsenal have 6 days to rest up and be ready, so maybe it is understandable that Arteta wanted to keep them sharp, but in the aftermath, we may hope some of the performances won’t negatively effect confidence.
Arsenal started out the game with a bit of fortune as the first, early cross saw Lacazette impeded and knocked to the ground. Mike Dean saw nothing wrong with it, but after a lengthy VAR check, had that decision reversed. Seeing his face, and the look of revolt, as he was forced to award Arsenal a penalty may have been one of the highlights of the year. Aubameyang would step up to the spot and put it away to put Arsenal up and give his hopes of a last-gasp Golden Boot surge a go. 1-0 Arsenal, Aubameyang has 1 of 3 needed.
The early goal was certainly a cushion that Arsenal will have wanted after the stale, fruitless performance against Villa, but the bump didn’t reflect itself in people’s play. There was a lot of scrappy, last ditch defending after their goal, a header from Deeney that happened to hit Holding in the face despite him knowing nothing about it, and lots of space for Watford to carry the ball through the non-existent midfield. Whether that was a product of switching back to the 4-3-3 or Arsenal going through the motions, it will be a worry for Mikel.
In the 25th minute, despite the struggles, Arsenal would put another one past Watford on a nice bit of attacking movement. Joe Willock would pick up the ball in between the lines, slide it over to Pepe who would whip in a remarkably similar ball to the one Aubameyang scored against City. This time, with the pass not quite as deep, Aubameyang would settle it and lay it off to Kieran Tierney who would score his first goal for the red and white. Some call it fortunate for taking a slight deflection of a Watford defender, but he won’t mind one bit. 2-0 Arsenal.
Under 10 minutes later, Arsenal would get a third off a Kieran Tierney throw. A long heave from the corner, into the 6-yard box would land right at the feet of none other than Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. It was poor defending from Watford to allot him time and space without putting in a challenge because Aubameyang would use it to set himself up for an acrobatic bicycle kick to get his 2nd and Arsenal’s third. 3-0 Arsenal, Aubameyang with 2 of 3 needed.
Just when Arsenal thought they may go into the half up 3-0, David Luiz extended a lifeline to the Hornets with his 5th penalty of the year. It was a prime example of the type of day Arsenal’s central defending pair had together. Rob Holding with a silly giveaway puts Arsenal under pressure, Luiz tries to make up for things, and Mike Dean all too happy to make the easy call. Troy Deeney scores, 3-1 and game on.
If anyone felt comfortable with Arsenal’s 3-1 lead in the first half, the second half was a 45 minute display on why it wasn’t to be trusted. Defensive miscues, erred clearances, panicky ball movement and possession, and poor communication led to a handful of dangerous moments, only saved by Emi Martinez brilliance.
However, Emi couldn’t stop Danny Welbeck from scoring at The Emirates in the 66th minute, just four minutes after Martinez came up with a huge one-on-one save. This time, Sarr burst to the endline, Luiz was caught flat footed not covering the crosses angles and a smashed, low cross from Sarr found the space between Luiz and the outstretched hand of a diving Martinez. Arsenal 3-2 Watford.
Watford could smell blood in the water and frankly so could everyone else. Arsenal had already switched back into their more recent 3-4-3 shape, but that comfort didn’t bring too much defensive comfort. The squad was sleep walking through the rest of the game and seeing things out by the skin of their teeth. Just 7 minutes after conceding on a low cross, Martinez would make his finest save on a similar low cross into the box. Welbeck would attempt a cheeky back heel flip but Emi was up to the task of getting across his line with a last minute strong right arm, almost reaching backward to paw it out and get on top of it.
Up 3-2, Nketiah would have one final Arsenal chance, but at the last minute, attempt to lay it off to Aubameyang and give him the opportunity to score this third for the Golden Boot. It didn’t come of and Aubameyang’s shot was saved. An example of a good teammate though on the day. Aubameyang would come up one goal short of tying for the Golden Boot.
The danger wasn’t over for Arsenal just yet. Watford was primed and ready to make their best efforts to avoid relegation on the final day. Plenty of chances would fall at their feet, but none would be tucked away in the form of a leveler. The final attempt came in the 92nd minute off the head of Troy Deeney, once more. Rob Holding wasn’t able to do much about it, but was let off the hook one final time as Deeney was unable to score off the open header.
The game and season came to an end with a relatively flat performance, but Arsenal was able to hold onto the win. Despite scoring three goals, only a few could argue that the effort and technical abilities of Arsenal were on display. An incredible game from Emi Martinez again, a good display from Kieran Tierney and Aubameyang on the left, and a decent day for Dani Ceballos who continued his form of quality appearances.
8th place for Arsenal, certainly what they have earned, maybe even a bit better, and with it, the ability to put this Premier League season to rest. Chelsea next weekend for another huge final opportunity and chance at winning their way into qualification against Chelsea. Will need to be better than today was to get the job done at Wembley, but Arteta will be more than aware of that.