Arsenal brush off VAR and penalty miss to grind out win over Watford

Mikel Arteta’s side now closing in on top four as their resurgence continues apace

Arsenal’s Emile Smith Rowe celebrates with teammates after scoring the winner in their Premier League match against Watford. Photo: Facundo Arrizabalaga/EPA

Arsenal’s Emile Smith Rowe celebrates with teammates after scoring the winner in their Premier League match against Watford. Photo: Facundo Arrizabalaga/EPA

 

Arsenal 1 Watford 0

After 100 games in charge, Mikel Arteta has Arsenal breathing down the necks of those he is entrusted with catching. They have taken 20 points from their last eight games and, after this scratchy win over a rudimentary Watford, sit on the shoulders of the top four; this was not necessarily an afternoon’s work that screamed of Champions League quality but it did suggest that, faced with awkward and disruptive opponents, they now possess the initiative and resolve to pull through.

That is highly encouraging for Arteta and so is the form of Emile Smith Rowe, whose third goal in as many top-flight matches meant the manager could bask in his milestone if he so chose. The decision to delay Smith Rowe’s call-up to the full England squad seems, at best, conservative; a similar commentary might be applied to Ben White given his influence in creating the chance. Their contributions meant a missed penalty by Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, well saved by Ben Foster, was of little consequence and furthered the impression of a turning tide in these parts.

It might have felt akin to a victory for Watford that they survived the opening 45 minutes. Fast starts have become Arsenal’s stock in trade: Arteta’s players destroyed Spurs, Aston Villa and Leicester by roaring out of the traps and should have inflicted a similar punishment on Crystal Palace. They were palpably eager to do the same here but, despite near-total domination, struggled to attain the breakneck tempo that has bred such excitement recently. Against opponents who were happy to sit off, there was no press to break and little ground to eat up; this time Arsenal had to pick a path through and the first half rapidly became a test of patience.

That said, they should have gone in ahead and Watford could feel fortunate Danny Rose was not made to regret an extraordinary act of rashness in the 35th minute. Arsenal had hardly got going but, after a free-kick was half-cleared, Nuno Tavares miscued high into the air. It came down to the right of goal where Alexandre Lacazette prepared to take control, only for Rose to take him out with a desperately clumsy flailing of the arm. There had been little immediate danger but Rose, who looked a yard off the pace throughout, handed Arsenal a gift.

There has rarely been a clearer spot kick but Aubameyang squandered it, his strike neither close enough to the corner nor the middle. Foster repelled with a combination of hand and trailing leg before plunging onto the loose ball; in Arsenal’s previous home game, against Villa, Aubameyang had converted his own penalty rebound but this time his luck was out.

Arsenal’s performance might have meandered less if a seventh-minute goal from Bukayo Saka, converted after Foster had tipped away a chip from Lacazette, had not been ruled out for offside. Aubameyang had been beyond the keeper when he touched the ball forwards upon Foster’s intervention, meaning only one defender remained between Saka and the posts. A choreographed celebration with Smith Rowe looked slick but, after a VAR review, was correctly ruled premature.

That set the stage for a half of niggle, Foster only making one further save when he repelled Gabriel’s downward header shortly before the whistle. Watford’s quality in attack was minimal, although Juraj Kucka caused a flutter when White deflected his shot wide.

Saka had consistently left Rose for dead on the Arsenal right and repeated the trick straight after the break, Foster holding Albert Sambi Lokonga’s eventual shot. But pressure was rarely resulting in clear chances and Smith Rowe’s goal came just at the time when Arteta, taut and energetic throughout, may have considered turning to his substitutes.

Watford appeared to have survived a foray led by Saka but White, stepping up to intercept with Joshua King on his heels, regained possession 40 yards out. He swerved past Kucka and, although Moussa Sissoko made a half-challenge, the ball fell into Smith Rowe’s path. A sweet, slightly deflected, first-time finish swept into Foster’s left corner and this time there was no halting the festivities.

Nor was there any overturning the deficit. An offside Aubameyang diverted Martin Ødegaard’s seemingly goalbound shot over the line, denying Arsenal a second, but Watford’s threat was scarce. Their one real chance came late on when miscommunication between White and Aaron Ramsdale let King nip in. From a tight angle, but with the goal open, he could only find the side netting; moments later Kucka was dismissed for a foul on Tavares and Arsenal could feel secure. – Guardian

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