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Arsenal failings resurface in washout against Watford

10:56 01 February 2017

Alexis Sanchez  tussles with Watford's Sebastian Prodl during Arsenal's 2-1 defeat on Tuesday

Alexis Sanchez tussles with Watford's Sebastian Prodl during Arsenal's 2-1 defeat on Tuesday

Archant

On the way home from a wet Tuesday night in Islington, travelling Gooners were delayed because of a drainage problem off Holloway Road.

It was not the first time they had witnessed a busted flush that evening, as Arsenal limped to their 2-1 defeat against Watford.

With Chelsea drawing away at Liverpool, this was a prime opportunity for the Gunners to close the gap on the champions-elect. Instead, a combination of conservative tactics, defensive errors and unusually hesitant passages in attack left Arsene Wenger’s side nine points adrift from the top of the table.

Following Saturday’s scintillating 5-0 win at Southampton, confidence was high. The goals had flooded in. Passes were played with trademark panache. Out-of-action forwards such as Danny Welbeck and Theo Walcott were not only back, but bringing fresh pace to proceedings.

All of that meant nothing against a stubborn Watford side fighting for survival – especially when Wenger fielded a starting 11 that included Shkodran Mustafi as its lone survivor from St Mary’s.

The logic for not starting Welbeck was clear for, despite his two goals and assist three days earlier, the England international’s knees need to be wrapped in more bubble-wrap than a delivery of fine china.

However, after glistening performances at the weekend, Walcott and Lucas Perez would have felt aggrieved enough on the bench without the salt in the wound that constituted Olivier Giroud’s 45-minute display.

The Frenchman has long divided Arsenal fans. His presence is much like taking an aspirin: a small dose can make the pain disappear, but too much and it just worsens the problem.

There is no doubt that his 10 goals this season have been hugely helpful, often coming as late winners in games that looked dead and buried. Nonetheless, his lumbering physical presence was too easily neutralised by a well-drilled Watford defence, staving off Arsenal’s long balls and exposing the slow build-up the centre-forward’s presence demands.

With the storm clouds gathering, it would be unfair to cast Giroud as the sole lightning rod. Mesut Ozil was at his timid worst, while Alexis Sanchez was noticeably wasteful on the ball.

As much as both players can hold their employers ransom over ambition – which is, despite the well-publicised wage demands, surely the real deal breaker for any new contract – it’s on nights like these they must claim some personal responsibility.

For the two Watford goals, the defence was caught lacking. Petr Cech, not for the first time since moving across London, will feel he could have got down quicker to his near post for the opening goal.

For the second, Gabriel’s limitations as a makeshift right-back were exploited, and Mustafi – who has mostly appeared an astute summer signing – will look back with horror at his hesitant marking, alongside a catalogue of sloppy passes during the contest.

The list could go on. It will stop, inevitably, with the manager, who is no stranger to such a performance in the last decade, and later spoke of his players not being “mentally ready”.

It brings to mind Pep Guardiola’s admission about leaving Barcelona because the squad had grown immune to his motivational techniques. That was in a fraction of the time Wenger has spent at Arsenal, it must be said.

Improbable results against Bournemouth, Manchester United and Burnley have shown the Gunners are capable of digging in and getting something in games this season.

Unfortunately, in a sport where the prize is all or nothing, something is never enough. In Arsenal’s case, something feels inescapably wrong.

Follow me on Twitter @alexbellotti

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