Coming back from an international break usually adds an extra bit of unpredictability to an occasion. But with 20th place Watford replacing their manager it would only add to the element. Watford going in had not lost five consecutive home games since December 2013. Arsenal would start the game well but a lack of adjustment would see them shoot themselves in the foot.
Through tactical analysis, we will look into the tactics of the two clubs that lead to one of the Premier League’s most thrilling game’s this weekend. Seeing what went wrong for Unai Emery, Mesut Ozil’s impact and how Watford’s approach leads to results.
Watford under Javi Garcia changed system and tactics a lot early in the season as he looked to make last-ditch efforts to save his job. Quique Sanchez Flores on his return at the helm of Watford looked to keep it simple with a 4-4-2. Troy Deeney was missing through injury.
Unai Emery returned to the 4-3-1-2 despite it failing him and receiving criticism in his last away trip. It also saw him return to Arsenal’s #10, Mesut Ozil who was a shock selection. Alexander Lacazette was unavailable through injury. Nicolas Pepe made his third start for the club.
Return of Ozil
No player at Arsenal has ever split opinions more than Mesut Ozil. Most people wouldn’t have expected the German to start at Vicarage Road due to his reputation with him and away games. When asked about starting Ozil in away games last season Unai Emery said: “Sometimes we want something different”. What he means here is he looks for something different tactically. Aaron Ramsey was sometimes played as a 10 last season for his off the ball play, rather than Ozil who in contrast is best known for his creativity on the ball, but can sometimes be seen as a liability off it.
Ozil today offered something the Gunners have lacked and that is a connection from the midfield and attack. Alexander Lacazette was tasked with playing as a false nine against Spurs but only completed 77% of his passes. The different dimension Ozil can offer to the team can not be understated. His intelligent movement in-between opposition lines can create progressive passages that link the team together. He exhibited this during the sequence that leads to Arsenal’s 2nd goal.
Below is the entire sequence. As you can see, #10, Mesut Ozil offers a passing option in-between the lines. In this area, he’s able to provide a killer ball in the final third to the overlapping fullback Maitland-Niles whose low cross is met by Aubameyang.
Arsenal attacking tactics
Let’s continue where things went right for Arsenal. Against Tottenham Emery deployed a three-man midfield with the intention of creating a cover for the fullbacks to provide the width and potentially create chances from wide. You can make parallels to Jurgen Klopp’s possession structure at Liverpool. He again would go with a three-man midfield with Granit Xhaka and Matteo Guendouzi being the midfielders tasked with covering the wide spaces.
Below is an example of this. As you can see Kolasinac is able to push forward and stretch Watford’s shape while Granit Xhaka is holding the space behind him. If they were to lose the ball Arsenal would not be countered attacked as easily because of this extra cover. Guendouzi also pictured on the other side is doing the same for the right-sided fullback Maitland-Miles.
These tactics would directly assist in the creation of both of the Gunners’ goals. In the first goal, Kolasinac is allowed to sprint up the pitch without having to worry about the space behind him. He decisively is able to pass from the left half-space to the feet of Aubameyang who turns and shoots scoring.
The second goal comes from the other side. As previously mentioned during the Mesut Ozil section. Right-back Maitland-Miles is able to find himself in an advanced position and Guendouzi this time is the one holding the space behind him.
Watford high press
A very common theme in opposition tactics against Arsenal has been to press them high during buildup phases, as it is seen as a phase in which Arsenal are vulnerable. Quique Sanchez Flores would elect for his team to follow this trend. Compared to Arsenal’s former oppositions Burnley and even Liverpool, this pressing scheme was much more intense. It was highly effective as Watford would win the ball frequently in the opposition defensive third, forcing 11 failed passes in Arsenal’s defensive third.
The goal of the press was to force Arsenal into an error as quickly as possible to give them the best chance to score. The second the ball entered play the press was triggered. Watford had 31 shots, the most they’ve ever had in a Premier League game. This would also lead to them creating a direct error leading to a goal from Arsenal centre-back Sokratis.
Below you can see the average positioning of Watford’s players showing how high they pressed consistently throughout the 90. Only two Watford players are behind the half-way line.
Arsenal a disaster playing out the back
Why was Watford’s press so successful? Because Arsenal were a mess playing out from the back. They went into halftime with a 2-0 lead. Unai Emery despite some warning signs wouldn’t change much of anything. Challenging your team and sticking to your tactical principles is great and all but it would ultimately harm the Gunners more than help.
For a multitude of reasons, Arsenal was simply awful when starting play from their goalkeeper. Through analysis, we could see how Arsenal would mindlessly play into pressing traps. Meanwhile, stagnant off the ball movement interrupted passing sequences and would only feed into more turnovers.
Watford’s high press eliminated all immediate options for goalkeeper Berd Leno when playing out from the back. Despite this, they’d be persistent in their ways. Although this is no excuse for some of the decisions made. In this sequence specifically, Leno makes an outrageous choice to pass to Guendouzi which plays right into the opposition pressing trap. All four Watford players close down quickly on the midfielder and this turnover leads to two Watford shots.
When Arsenal would make the correct initial pass sometimes they would then struggle to progress the ball into the middle third. One passing sequence breaks down here due to the double pivot failing to create passing solutions.
In the first image, Leno is initially forced to pass to one of his centre-backs because Guendouzi is trapped into a 3v1. This creates space for Xhaka to potentially receive a pass but he’s not offering himself. Sokratis has to pass to Maitland-Miles out wide, Guendouzi doesn’t find the space to create a solution. Which forces Pepe to drop deep and Guendouzi again doesn’t make the off the ball movement necessary to get into space and progress the ball. This leads to Arsenal turning the ball over in their own half.
Flores will be very happy with his first game back in charge at Vicarage Road. Watford absolutely deserved the point fighting back from two goals down. The xG (expected goals) will tell you Arsenal were very lucky this game. With how Arsenal simply capitulated in the second half this can’t be more of a fair evaluation.
This results lead to more questioned be asked of Unai Emery’s tactics and approach. Watford’s performance shouldn’t be understated, however. Their pressing scheme looked fantastic and could become a signature part of their play moving forward this season.