On Sunday’s Premier League finale, the Arsenal game will have driven a few eyes, but simply because of what the result meant for relegation-threatened Watford. As I wrote in the recap, Arsenal’s 3-2 win was less than convincing, but perhaps on par with Arsenal’s season as it encapsulated the 11 month saga in a 90-minute summary.
Arsenal scored early but never seemed like they were doing much more than going through the motions. They then struggled to maintain their play to box out Watford’s chances to get back into the contest. And, in the end, it turned into shaky moments at the close that left supporters wondering if Arsenal deserved the three points.
Some will take very little from the game given it had little bearing on Arsenal’s future—besides seeing Arsenal move up to 8th and win themselves an extra £5.4m in prize money—while others will look at aspects with a slight grimace when they consider the upcoming FA Cup final against Chelsea will likely feature a handful of these exact players.
With that in mind, here are a few thoughts on the match:
1. Mikel not impressed with the effort
Even with an early lead off of two chances, when the water break hit Arteta looked to be fuming. He was emphatic, upset, and wildly gesticulating for more from his side long after the allotted time for the break. As someone who has stressed from the very first day that anything less than 100% in everything they do is not negotiable, seeing a relatively strong side go through the motions will have been tough for him.
After the game, Arteta assured that things will be different come Saturday and many will hope he is right. It was an open match as neither midfield seemed to be very present in controlling things, it was sloppy as both teams conceded penalties and plenty of chances, and it was slow as technical abilities seemed very hit or miss throughout the game – a sign of players mentally checking out and turning off.
Naturally, a final will change the way players prepare and approach a game, but if you play how you prepare, this will have been the final match before a final the dictates how everyone views the season. Even winning the cup won’t make the season a good one, but it will at least leave Gooners feeling as though they haven’t slipped quite as far back and have some ability in the shortened transfer window. Mikel will have to address the root cause of that mentality and may question how far he has really come in the last months in changing attitudes around the club.
2. A shaky outing for the Holding and Luiz partnership
With the announcement that Mustafi’s hamstring injury will prevent him from playing in the FA Cup final, all eyes turned to Rob Holding as the one most likely to get the call. Rob Holding has a fan-favorite history with playing Chelsea in finals after his rock-solid performance in shutting down Diego Costa in the 2017 FA Cup final that Arsenal won 2-1.
With high hopes for another classic in the making, fans will have been filled with more than a few moments of worry after viewing Holding and Luiz’s shaky partnership. Luiz was heavily involved in both of Watford’s goals, conceding the penalty for the first and being caught extremely flatfooted one Watford’s second from Welbeck. Holding on the other had looked shaky at times with the ball at his feet including an errant pass leading to the penalty and both struggled to deal with Welbeck in aerial duels or handling moments that someone like Giroud will thrive in. This is including multiple open headers for Deeney in the box, hold up play and distribution, and clever runs in the box to find space. If not for a few great saves from Emi, Watford could have notched 4 or 5 past the pair.
While there is a very good chance that the pair don’t appear in the final as the lone two centerbacks, there were also moments of worry when Arsenal did shift back to their 3-4-3. All in all, it will be a game to forget for those two as they refocus their attention on Frank Lampard’s rampant attack. Whether in a 4-back or 3-back system, they will have their hands full with Chelsea who have scored 69 goals this year – 3rd most in the league.
3. 4-3-3? 4-2-3-1? 3-4-3?
Have the mental games begun already? If so, they are working on me.
Arsenal opened the match with a lineup that seemed to fluctuate a bit between a 4-3-3 and a 4-2-3-1. This included moments early on that saw Xhaka filter into the backline so Tierney could get into the attack, similar to what could be seen when Saka was playing the left back role. Whether this was out of necessity, given the inclusion of Willock and the exclusion of Soares or Saka or Arteta’s desire to see what his side could offer him in a more desirable 4-back system, Arteta may not be overly pleased.
While Arsenal did manage to convert a penalty, score a very nice second goal that was probably be the attacking highlight of their match, and score a third goal off an acrobatic finish allowed by poor Watford defending, it was never that convincing of a formation. The midfield was often out of position and seeming a bit lost, the possession and ball movement into dangerous areas was inconsistent, and when considering Chelsea’s Kovacic and Jorginho has beat Arsenal through their play alone, a nonexistent midfield is a bit worrisome.
Later in the game, Arsenal switched back to the more familiar 3-4-3 formation that they have played in lately. Even when they made that switch, Arsenal seemed a bit checked out of it all. The one positive of note, was the moment they made this switch, Pepe on the right wing immediately had the ability to come much more central and looked a bit more dangerous with it all. Getting him in a more central location, on the ball, is something fans have been clamoring for since Arteta took over.
Arteta has said, everything on Saturday will be different, but if the goal was to play with 3 in the midfield in some capacity, signs from Watford won’t have looked promising. Big week Arteta’s side to perfect how they think it will be best to get at Chelsea’s defense for the finals. One game, one day, gotta get it right.
These takeaways seem a bit doom and gloom, but I should note there were a few positives. It just seemed more important to call out some of these and their attachments to the upcoming final. Other notes of interest include a very impressive display for Martinez who keeps collecting highlight moments for this reel and the continuation of Arsenal’s left-side dominance. Aubameyang and Tierney were devastating as they racked up 3 goals and 2 assists between themselves along with another impressive defensive display that saw Aubameyang on both ends of the ball. It’s a partnership that everyone will want to see continue to blossom.
6 days. 144 hours. That’s what Arteta has to get ready for his first final as a manager and he will want to make it count. There are already vibes of Baku in the air given how much the result of this one game will mean for how people judge the season. We just all hope there will be a vastly different result at the end.