So here we find ourselves, at the beginning of April, with all but the tiniest glimmer of hope that a Premier League title challenge remains. Were it to be City and Chelski duking it out at the top of the division, we’d all be looking at what reinforcements Arsenal need to make after another disappointing league campaign, but because of the current challengers, the hope remains that the two above us will falter.
It even feels like Arsene is thinking that, because in his presser yesterday he even started talking about how we now come to the part of the season where the pressure becomes more intense and as he said, the “stress becomes bigger”. Although to be fair to him, he also spoke highly of how well Leicester have played this season, how they’ve been brilliant, yada, yada, yada.
As for us, everyone has written us off and although I too am not really that convinced we’ll win all of our games or we’ll be champions, there’s part of me that is desperately trying to find reason into why it might actually happen. For example, everyone already knows how Arsene Wenger teams of the last five to ten years have cracked under pressure, right? So now that the title is practically done, now that almost all hope is lost and the pressure doesn’t seem to be on because nobody believes we can win it, wouldn’t it just be so very Arsenal-like to go on a winning run and suddenly find ourselves back in the hunt, because the players thought they were just seeing out the rest of the season? Arsene should do whatever the human equivalent of horse blinders are to every single Arsenal players. That would probably end up pushing us as close as we can to an actual title shot.
He needs to do that today. He needs to tell the team that the league is done, they’re just playing for a top four spot against Watford and to make sure we secure the three points today. The players won’t feel pressure, they’d sweep aside Watford and we’d be on to the next game in a week’s time against West Ham. But if they start to think we’re in with a shot of the league, then the knees will probably go all wobbly and we’ll probably fold like a house of cards.
In his presser yesterday he confirmed that Cech is back training and he hasn’t made up his mind yet about whether he’ll play, but I suspect he’ll start in goal, with a back four of Bellerin, Monreal, Koscielny and Gabriel. There could be a question mark over whether Mertesacker is preferred but to be honest with you either should be good enough today. Yes we got our noses bloodied against the Hornets last time out, but they scored with their only two shots on target and so as long as we keep our concentration defensively, then you’d expect either of those two centre halves should be able to deal with Deeney and Igahlo. Should, being the key word in that sentence. We all know our propensity for defensive brain-farts, so I’m not going to make any assumptions based on what we’ve seen in 2016 so far.
If defensively we are better than the last home game we played – also against Watford – then all that is left is for a little less profligacy from the front four. I saw a stat that we’ve been averaging something like 25 shots to every goal at home in 2016. That is both terrifying and appalling and whilst some have been quick to point at the Emirates crowd for atmosphere and nervousness, I personally just don’t buy it, because it’s hardly the fans who are screwing shots wide or smashing attempts straight at every ‘keeper. The issue of atmosphere is a two-way street. The players show that their willing and up for a fight, the fans will respond, to which the players will feed off of that support. So whilst we all need to be up for it as soon as kick off comes, we need to see a response. I’m not even sure if we’ve scored in the first half at home for the last two months, so a goal with no response from Watford today in the first 45, would be most welcome.
I can’t really see anyone other than the four who started against Everton beginning today’s game. Theo can wish for a start all he likes given what Roy Hodgson has said after the recent international break, but frankly he just hasn’t done enough all season to warrant it, so I don’t see him getting the nod today. Not from the start, anyway. So it will surely be Ozil, Alexis, Welbeck and Giroud. Thankfully the ice pack for Welbeck on England duty appears to just have been a precaution, as Arsene said all of the players came back without any problems, so with his form and movement at Everton, you’d expect him to cause more trouble than Giroud at the moment.
Watford will sit deep, look to frustrate and catch Arsenal on the counter with longer balls in to the channels for the willing forward runners to try to take advantage of, which worked a few weeks back, so there’s definitely a possibility of it working today. However, if we can unlock them early, it forces a shift in mindset for Flores’ men and I’d expect them to come out and leave more spaces. Then it becomes up to us to take advantage. Until that first goal, however, you suspect it will be football played in close quarters with bodies on the 18-yard box, so the surgical precision of Mesut Ozil will be essential.
A few pundits are expecting us to win this game, but I don’t think it will be comfortable, because nothing has been all season. So I can’t see us winning this by three or four goals. But as long as we shut out Watford then I think we might be able to get one (famous last words!), so I think we are going to have to be patient today, which means if it’s 0-0 with ten to go, we’ll all be the exact opposite. What we do need to see is the players playing as if the league really is done if we don’t win. Because if we’re all honest with ourselves, it probably is done if we don’t win.
Come on Arsenal!!