Arsenal 1 Watford 2 (31/01/2017) 01/02/2017Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
1- Bloody Hell.
2- A friend had given me a lift to the station from work…
“So where are you heading off to?”
“Who’s playing?” (not a football fan)
“Arsenal against Watford. Ummmm… it could be ugly. I think these things are supposed to be character building…”.
I’m sure I wasn’t alone in that. It was a free punch, but a free punch with the lowest of expectations. We’ve been struggling – plenty of qualifiers, reasons, but we’ve been struggling and nothing about our recent form – least alone on Sunday, albeit with a scratch team – suggested that this was on the cards. Arsenal, meanwhile, have been flying. This was only going to end one way – the passing up of the opportunity to bounce this to Wednesday night spoke volumes about where this week’s priority was. Vicarage Road, Saturday, Burnley.
I’d settled myself into a zen-like state of acceptance on the train down. When your expectations are lowest anything’s a bonus, obviously, but this wasn’t mere self-preservation. With a view to enjoying the evening it was a case of scratching out the positives, looking for things to build on. Anything that wasn’t awful would be enjoyable. Better teams than us will get gubbed by Arsenal.
3- The line-up was a minor fascination. Four centre-backs across the defence was interesting… Slav had tried the same at home to Rotherham in the promotion season resulting in a game that was brutally effective if thoroughly forgettable. Brutally effective would do here, but this was a completely different ask. Niang’s debut had been widely trailed, Isaac Success on the bench less so. Through his staccato first season in England Success has managed to prolong his status as well-kept secret for an unprecedented period – most such treasures get found out and their bubble diffused, or become public knowledge by now. Also back in the starting line-up were Behrami, to patrol in front of the back four, and Janmaat with Tom Cleverley partnering Capoue in the centre of midfield. The game started in heavy rain, illuminated into a veil by the stadium lights. We stood reclining into the backs of our comfy chairs, applauded dutifully and defiantly and awaited the inevitable. Arsenal, too, seemed to have expected to turn up, do their thing and record an unremarkable win… whilst their failings were manifold it’s surely beyond dispute that had we played our scripted role, turned up, put up a tentative and nervous backs-to-the-wall resistance that’s exactly what would have happened.
4- Instead we howled into them with the force of a wrecking ball into a dolls house. It would be difficult to overstate the magnificence of that first half… it was as if all our vigour, energy, verve, bloody-mindedness had been saved for this moment, like a child saving up pocket money for a special occasion. The disconnect between what was expected and what was happening on the pitch was evident in every challenge that saw an Arsenal midfielder hassled out of possession; the more so when, having won possession, we thundered past with options overlapping and Arsenal players scrambling. This wasn’t how it was supposed to go down.
It helped that we got the goal. Of course it did. In fact the whole thing was contingent on that early breakthrough, much as the bouncing disbelief after the second three minutes later was tempered with a look at the clock and “oh crap, there’s still 75 minutes to go…”. There’s a world of difference between a bloody-minded Watford side and a bloody-minded Watford side with a lead to defend. It didn’t make our job easy, but it made Arsenal’s extremely difficult.
That we got that break was all down to us though, down to the positiveness and aggression that saw Niang flying down the centre of the pitch. The free kick looks a bit soft on the replay but whatever… tickets, raffles. He was there to win it, that’s what being positive gets you. Younès Kaboul did his trademark rocket-launcher thing, we got another break with a deflection but heaven knows those deflections have been going against us, about time for some redress of that I think. Plus, Aaron Ramsey. Yes it’s very hurty if it hits you because he’s a big scary man who kicks the ball very hard but to quote Steve Morison, if you don’t like it, go home.
5- Pulling out individuals is wrong, because there wasn’t a performance that was anything less than outstanding, extraordinary. So let’s pull out all of them.
Étienne Capoue. My word. This was the force of nature that we remember from the beginning of the season, but with booster rockets and go-faster stripes. Foot in every tackle, driving forward relentlessly as epitomised by the second goal… disdainfully bypassing opponents first with a drop of the shoulder, then through brute force, then through “well if you’re not going to challenge me I’ll keep going”. Smacked a shot that Cech could only block, Troy gobbles up, two-nil. Magnificent, and if he was quieter in the second half that rendered him merely fantastic.
Tom Cleverley. Doesn’t give the ball away. Ever. Not by operating in safe areas of the pitch where he’s got time and space, but despite pushing on and being bold. Others have had that knack of retaining possession no matter what – Jonathan Hogg springs to mind – but not in combination with this verve. His confidence must have been knocked by his fall from grace but no sign of that here… he’s back home.
M’Baye Niang. You’re used to seeing a young forward, especially a wide man, come in and be exciting, that’s not new. Then over time you realise that he is easily bullied, or he doesn’t know how to pass the ball, or he’s all tricks and no end product. No danger of that here. Those boxes are already ticked. Quick and clever, yes, already a weapon that makes our attack so much more potent with speed and slight of foot, a snake slithering cruelly through opponents legs. But he’s clever too, he knows where to run and – best of all? – he can hold the ball up, he can handle himself. We have a player.
Less spectacular but just as welcome on the other flank, Daryl Janmaat. An ostensibly defensive set-up was rendered potent by having Janmaat and Niang invariably hugging the touchlines every time we broke; we signed Janmaat as a full-back but he’s an attacking threat first and foremost and he was perfectly at home on the right of midfield, bundling into challenges and forcing Cech into a clawing save towards the end of the half.
Valon Behrami. Doing what Valon Behrami does, blood dripping from his jaws, slightly lunatic smile, this game was made for him. He stamped all over it too, a royal pain in the arse of every home attack until being taken off twenty minutes into the second half.
5- By then the game had changed. Reports suggest that “Arsenal improved in the second half” whilst nonetheless describing the team’s performance as “below par”. It didn’t feel below par for that opening 20 minutes. It felt very much as if we were going to get blown away in Arsenal’s whirlwind. You wouldn’t have put money on us getting anything from the game at that stage, not a point, not anything. Walcott was on for the lumpy Giroud and the home side were all twists and turns, and darting runs that nobody in the stadium anticipated. We stood up to it well, the incomparable Gomes making one stunning save from Walcott in a face-off after the winger was found free on the right of the box and another from Iwobi who had switched flanks with Sanchez. Bodies were put on the line, crucially nobody panicked and put in a stupid challenge – Nacho Monreal had already sounded a warning klaxon with a feeble dive in the first half for which he was booked. No further opportunity could be offered and wasn’t, although Prödl’s murderously precise challenge on Sanchez had hearts briefly in mouths. Shortly afterwards Arsenal got their goal regardless. It felt like a matter of time, and we began to steel ourselves with the knowledge that even glorious defeat was so much better than we’d feared.
In my head, things changed again with the Behrami substitution. Kieron leaned over and suggested that his well-judged trudge to the touchline constituted the longest interruption to Arsenal’s onslaught of the half. He was joking, but he was right… and they never quite had us under such pressure thereafter. Doucouré and Okaka both gave us much needed legs off the bench, the latter replacing the relentless Deeney whose lone furrow had been ploughed deep into the earth’s molten core. But Success was the triumph, the icing on a very ample cake. True, he twice exposed us to potential disaster not by overplaying, but simply by not being defensively aware enough as Arsenal’s urgency ramped up in the closing ten minutes. At the other end of the pitch, however, he induced panic… and one outrageous flippy-flappy trick on the edge of the box had him skating clear of an utterly confused Arsenal defence, ready to slide the ball under Cech… except that Troy, too, had been confused by Success’s brilliance and had inadvertently blocked the Nigerian’s pass through for himself.
6- So we held out. Kaboul and Prödl monstrous and defiant, Cathcart and Britos so much more confident, assured, unpanickable than recent performances have suggested.
At half time I’d run into Lionel, with whom I’d shared grumpy reflection at London Bridge post-Millwall on Sunday. We’d both been full of how dreadful it all was (it was) and what a grim place the world had become (it had). No words were necessary in the concourse at the Emirates, we just laughed. Too much analysis surely ruins the enjoyment. What did we know, anyway?
Today is Graham’s funeral in Watford. An important, significant day in memory of an important, significant man. The win was dedicated to his family and his memory both by Troy and by Walter Mazzari… something that’s easy enough to say but important, too, and they’d earned the right to say it. Fitting, too, since in GT’s time, famously, “We Always Beat the Arsenal”. This win, this performance bears comparison with any by a Watford side since that era, and many of those of that time too.
So what a magnificent evening. Suddenly we can look forward to the rest of the season with no small optimism. And all rendered ever so slightly more enjoyable by the fact that nobody, least of all Arsenal, not ourselves either, saw it coming.