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Arsenal 1 Watford 0 (07/11/2021) 08/11/2021

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.

1- I don’t boast an extensive wardrobe. Shorts for the summer, jeans for the winter.  A nice Italian suit that I got married in.  A pair of smart black trousers.  I imagine.  And that’s about it for legwear.

Definitely jeans for the winter, or when it’s more that way than the other.  These tend to accumulate at a rate dictated by the inevitable appearance of a hole in the right knee after a certain period of wear…  a development that doesn’t render the garment wholly unusable but probably not ideal for work (even now that I’m back in full time, the ability to wear jeans on all but the specialest of occasions remains one of the things that I like about my job which I should remember when things that I don’t enjoy are front of mind).

Every now and again the jeans drawer will be reviewed; heading down to London on this bright Sunday morning it became clear that this exercise is possibly overdue as I discovered that a the long established hole in the knee of this particular pair had been joined by a gash in an altogether less socially acceptable area.  

Options were weighed up.  Daughter 2, on being asked for advice, contemplated possibilities with the gravity that one might associate with discussing a family crisis.  It was, in any event, not a good sign.  Not a suggestion that Everything Was Going To Go Well Today.

On a similar note, our opening five minutes here was chaotic.  We were unpeeled effortlessly in the opening exchanges as the ball wandered over to the Arsenal right where two attacking players were waiting apologetically before Sissoko dived in front of Lacazette to deflect away.  Not long afterwards a calamity of errors saw Arsenal open the scoring;  Sarr was too casual in a deep position and was robbed aggressively by Tavares, the ball worked its way across from Arsenal’s left to right again and this time Aubameyang fed Saka who tucked home in all sorts of space.  A shambles comparable to the one that saw us concede a soft early goal at Goodison and once again the portents for enjoying the rest of the afternoon weren’t great.

2- Both of which incidents go to show that you shouldn’t give up too readily.  Having baulked at the likely implications of a pair of jeans without a price tag at the boutiques at St Pancras I was assured by friends at Highbury and Islington that any issues were well concealed by my long fleece.  I survived the rest of the day well ventilated but no worse.

Meanwhile whilst the defending WAS catastrophic it was, fortunately, catastrophic enough to render Saka offside as acknowledged by another of those late VAR corrections.  VAR remains a miserably pedantic thing whilst an honest individual would have to concede that we would have been a goal down had our defending been slightly less inept, leaving Ben Foster somewhere closer to his unguarded goal line.  We silently, briefly acknowledged both of these facts before celebrating our reprieve in the manner that the moment deserved.

A rumbustious, noisy, combative match developed and saw us capitalise on our early good fortune to an extent.  Yes, we lost the game and probably deserved to.  But this was a far, far stouter performance than had seemed credible in those opening minutes offering some encouragement in facing what’s to come.  Apart from anything else, it’s perhaps the first time this season that we can feel genuinely rueful about a game that we’ve lost.  We need actual points rather than brownie points, of course, but at this stage of the season brownie points are still better than nothing.

3- We rode our luck on occasions here but there’s nothing lucky about a good goalkeeping performance.  There was certainly no luck in Ben Foster’s tremendous penalty save after Rose’s clumsy challenge had felled Lacazette…  Aubameyang’s prancing run-up was one of a man who expected to score, which made what was effectively a double save – Foster blocking with his legs and quickly recovering the loose ball – all the more enjoyable and startling.  But this was only the most striking contribution from Foster, who was alert and proactive with his distribution, pulled off a terrific stop to deny a powerful downward header from Gabriel Magalhães at the end of the half, and parried a ferocious drive from outside the area from Lokonga after the break.  And… that was it really from Arsenal in terms of (legitimate) non-trivial on-target efforts.  Which, considering that they’re a confident, capable side who’ve won eight and drawn two of their last ten is not insignificant.

The defence has come in for a lot of stick and, as suggested last week, more than it has probably deserved… but here the bold switch of three of four personnel from last weekend largely paid dividends.  Nkoulou, on his full debut, was a calming influence, Cathcart enjoyed being back on the right of the pair in the centre and Kiko was lively and ebullient, offering us a much needed outball breaking forward.

The midfield remains the issue however for all that Juraj Kucka offered a chink of light by tiptoeing through Arsenal’s backline before seeing his shot through Ben White’s legs deflected narrowly wide.  We looked sturdier today, Tufan and Sissoko both put in a shift but we still have precious little attacking shape, no stock goals or stock moves and little attacking conviction.  The lack of clean sheets is seen as damning.  The lack of threat is the bigger problem;  it’s not just the lack of goals, it’s the relatively limited risk the opponent takes in piling on pressure which in turn impacts that ongoing clean sheet stat.

Nonetheless, we finished the half level and reasonably defiant.

4- Kieron would subsequently describe the game as a bit of a throwback – boisterous, aggressive, perpetually on the verge of boiling over, tackles flying in, cards being waved around.  Kevin Friend’s refereeing performance matched that feel.

It’s sometimes suggested that refereeing standards have dropped – certainly post-match emotional hyperbole will often cite appalling officiating.  I don’t think that’s true, in general.  Maybe I’m just getting old, but I certainly don’t find myself exercised by officials very much any more.  1999-2000 was the nadir, I think.  Rob Harris’ masterclass against the Gunners at Vicarage Road in which David Seaman was allowed to rugby tackle Heidar Helguson only one of an extraordinary number of refereeing catastrophes that season.

The Kevin Friend game, in case you’ve forgotten, the reason that he’s on that particular List was the 2008 play-off semi first leg against Hull City.  On reflection this isn’t his biggest crime though.  Anyone can have a bad day.  Even the notorious Stuart Attwell – indeed, perhaps particularly Stuart Attwell – has had a pretty innocuous time of it officiating the Hornets since his most notorious hour against Reading.  

Innocuous has never been a word used to describe Friend, whose pompous low-level bubbling incompetence means that he’s far too prominent a feature of any game that he officiates.  That’s the bigger issue.  Here his dishing out of yellow cards for borderline aggression on both sides was at least consistently applied but the delineation between what was and what wasn’t a foul less so.  The sense of outrage in the away end was palpable and bubbling and the game retained a sense of never quite being under control.

Nonetheless, if Friend contributed to the mood that facilitated the game’s decisive moment he wasn’t directly responsible for it.  Arsenal had started the half more purposefully, we’d started to throw some attacking punches ourselves, if inconsequentially.  Then approaching the hour with Ozan Tufan on the deck, Danny Rose played the ball out to allow treatment.

Tufan wasn’t badly hurt, his subsequent removal almost certainly tactical.  As the ball went out he was already rising to his feet and declining what looked like an offer of medical attention from the official, something which rather spoils the subsequent “yes but they were just wasting time” justifications overheard in queues for the tube.  Watford anticipated the ball being returned and Arsenal didn’t do so.  Not only that, but they took a quick throw with the defence not set up, further capitalising on the confusion.  Friend should perhaps have pulled them up, but the act wasn’t his – this was cheap, classless opportunism on Arsenal’s part.  The ball worked its way across the box (via a collision involving Sarr, prompting optimistic calls for a foul on the Watford winger) and Smith-Rowe, perhaps the best outfield player on the afternoon, struck home.  

5- Bearing in mind our own fortune in the opening minutes we shouldn’t grumble too much at the outcome.  The manner of it however is aggravating.  Difficult not to sympathise with Ranieri’s frustration, you’d rather be undone by a piece of skill than by gamesmanship.  

Arsenal would find the net once again and once again, promptly this time, be pulled back for offside.  By and large though they sat off – there was some immediate pressure applied but yet further frustration arrived in our inability to apply a sucker punch to a side who were so patently inviting one.  That we didn’t really deserve the point would have made it all the more enjoyable – but rather than putting their foot on our neck, frustrated and volatile as we were, Arsenal stepped back apprehensively.  We should have capitalised, we didn’t.

Josh King came closest, thanks to a kamikaze run out to the Arsenal right by the excitable Ramsdale which bypassed ball and player leaving King goalside with the ball at his feet.  On review… this wasn’t as easy as it looked in my head the first time round when time slowed down as King pulled the trigger.  Then it appeared that he could have teed up Sarr or lined himself up a kinder angle rather than ambitiously trying to thread the ball in from a narrow angle and failing to do so.  Actually, neither alternative was trivial with defenders in attendance but that was the moment.  Otherwise, whilst we clawed back some territory the threat was largely hypothetical.  Cucho swung a number of crosses and set pieces into the arms of the keeper or onto the foreheads of defenders taller than the men they were marking.  There was no kitchen-sinking, no suggestion of it despite the late introduction of Fletcher for Cathcart.  Instead the footnote was a red card for Juraj Kucka for a slightly harsh second yellow after a clumsy but hardly malicious challenge on the edge of our box.  And that was that.

Whilst Kevin Friend’s performance harked back to 1999/2000 our own performance thus far doesn’t.  For all its challenges and limitations this isn’t a side obviously destined for relegation.  There’s more too us than that, I think.  But nor are we destined for the relatively inconspicuous security of mid-table that characterised the first four years of our last spell in the Premier League.  We’re genuinely in a relegation battle, a relatively unusual thing in our recent past there having been precious little battle about most of our relegations going as far back as GT’s first arrival.

Claudio needs to sort aspects of the team out, but there were positive signs today.  We’ll need guts and a bit of bloody-mindedness too.  Positive signs on that score also.

The jeans are now in the bin.  The season isn’t.


*Foster 5*, Femenía 4, Rose 2, Cathcart 3, Nkoulou 4, Sissoko 3, Kucka 4, Tufan 3, Sarr 3, Dennis 3, King 2
Subs: João Pedro (for Tufan, 62) 3, Hernández (for Dennis, 74) 2, Fletcher (for Cathcart, 94) NA, Masina, Cleverley, Ngakia, Troost-Ekong, Sierralta, Bachmann


1. Adam Cummings - 08/11/2021

Overall I think officiating standards have improved but so has the speed of the game and I fear too many officials (linesmen) in particular are relying on VAR. In time this will work itself down the league ladder and the ref will become little more than a whistle blower as is happening in top class cricket.

Matt Rowson - 08/11/2021

“cricket” ? 😉

2. sptemple - 08/11/2021

I came away feeling encouraged too, so it’s nice to read that I wasn’t the only one. The one thing I’d add is that for the Arsenal goal, we had at least three opportunities to put a decent tackle in before the ball fell to the excellent Smith-Rowe.

Its a shame that the international break has arrived again. Given the resolve shown v Arsenal and the troubles at Man U under Ole, I’d quite fancy playing Man U this weekend rather than having to wait a fortnight.

Matt Rowson - 08/11/2021

agree. at least he appears to be staying where he is for now tho.

3. Peter - 08/11/2021

Watching live “ a collision involving Sarr, prompting optimistic calls for a foul on the Watford winger” is what I first thought. But the video replay clearly shows AMN watching the man not the ball as he turns his shoulder straight into Sarr’s chest and Smith Rowe scores from the space Sarr would have been covering. Isn’t the video replay what the VAR is supposed to watch? The foul was committed on a player wearing the wrong shirt for Kevin Not-our-friend to notice.

Matt Rowson - 08/11/2021

Thanks Peter. I was at the other end of the pitch and only saw one angle from Sky’s on-line highlights (getting home and getting a report written on a school night a challenge… plus don’t like to embellish the in-stadium experience too much, as you’ve demonstrated you are at least as capable of watching a replay as I am of describing it!). But as you say, from that first showing it looks like a collision.

4. Graham French - 08/11/2021

Very enjoyable report, Matt. Glad the trouser situation sorted. I only listened to the commentary – I’m away from the uk for a few weeks- but your report confirmed my impression that we sound a bit more solid ( other than the first 6 minutes) & could/should have nicked a point. On the plus side , if we’d won you might have been condemned to wearing derelict jeans to all future games.

Matt Rowson - 08/11/2021

I hadn’t considered this last point, thank you. Did establish that new green fleece and no club colours is not a deterministic winning formula despite success at Everton.

5. E17 Hornet - 08/11/2021

Definite foul on Sarr as correctly analysed in MOTD2 but, like you, at the time, I was more aggreived by the cheating Gooners than the ‘Gooner in the black’!

6. Andy Macey - 08/11/2021

Loved reading this, thank you Matt. Long few weeks ahead but we’re far from down and out

Matt Rowson - 08/11/2021

Cheers Andy

7. Harry Rowson - 08/11/2021

You have a daughter who insists on putting big gashes in the legs of her brand new jeans. In my day, putting aside the fact that I’m still just 19, old and faded Levi’s with genuine patches covering them were de rigeur and as valuable as a second hand car today. But you’re just scruffy. And tight. I know this because I raised you.
I was meant to be at your side on Sunday but when you’re under the weather, standing for 90 odd minutes is a dumb form of machismo. And disliked by at least a large minority.
Referees. You know that I am deeply suspicious of any personality that wants to be a ref. Should they be pitied or scorned? Friend did OK, he didn’t done good. His fellow officials clearly proved deficient homers. For there to be any doubt about the first ball in the net coming from an offside player…. risible. And our team were too frequently on the wrong end of questionable decisions. Not that Sky TV’s Alan Smith recognised that with his one eye always pointing elsewhere. Another advantage of ‘being there’ and not in front of the telly.
I enjoyed your report (well done my son) and agree with most conclusions. Except that Kucka is proving that he has ‘legend’ potential. You missed that.

To defend well you must carry an attacking threat. With a bit more belief we have players who can do that.

You’ve guessed it. I have work to do and I’m temporising. I’ll go.

8. jtbodbo - 08/11/2021

I agree with your report and the feelings. Thanks very much. We weren’t the better side, we did have some luck. But… the 2 incidents that led to their ‘goal’ makes me think. What is the point ? I think I would prefer the random injustices that occur with a ‘live’ ref & officials, rather than the identifiable incompetence that occurred on Sunday.
All that aid, I do think our midfield is pedestrian.

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