On a tumultuous night, when the rain tumbled down from the first whistle, Wenger watched his Premier League title hopes suffer a body blow and the feeling left him numb. It was an occasion when the Arsenal support had one eye on Chelsea’s game at Liverpool. They travel to Stamford Bridge to face the league leaders on Saturday and it felt as though Wenger’s players thought they merely had to turn here up to collect the three points.
Even Wenger suggested that complacency might have been a factor during a first-half performance that was down there with the most wretched of his recent tenure. “Did we think subconsciously we could turn up and it would be OK?” he asked. “I don’t know,” which was Wenger-speak for ‘Yes’.
There was also the damning comment from him that “mentally, we were not ready for the [physical] challenges. When you play at home, in our position, that is not normal. Everybody in the Premier League is strong physically and [to give] 90% is not enough.”
This was Watford’s night. They were brilliant in the first-half and they might have had more than the goals from Younès Kaboul and Troy Deeney to show for their superiority. Arsenal were indebted to Petr Cech for a couple of important saves and, obviously, the home team were booed off at half-time. Watford were supposed to be in a rut, having won one of their previous 10 league fixtures. They did not play like it.
Walter Mazzarri noted how a clutch of his starting players had not completed 90 minutes for a while and it was inevitable that their levels would drop in the second half. There was a blitz from Arsenal at the beginning of it and they advertised the comeback through Alex Iwobi’s goal on 58 minutes.
But Watford weathered the storm and, in truth, they held their hosts at arms’ length thereafter. The Arsenal substitute Lucas Pérez rattled the crossbar with a left-foot rocket from an angle on 85 minutes but that was the only time that his team threatened the equaliser.
Mazzarri felt the elation pour out at full time and he would dedicate the victory to the late, great Graham Taylor, whose name was chanted by the travelling fans throughout.
Watford had been two goals to the good inside 13 minutes and it was pinch-me time for them. Kaboul, the former Tottenham defender, watched his 25-yard free-kick deflect off Ramsey to wrong‑foot Cech for the opener and it was just the start of a horrible evening for the Arsenal midfielder.
Ramsey was caught out for Watford’s second goal and, on 18 minutes, he felt his calf muscle twang and he was forced off. Wenger said he could not put a timeframe on Ramsey’s absence but it will most likely be a minimum of three weeks.
Watford’s second goal was all about the anticipation and turn of pace of another former Spurs player, Étienne Capoue. He was on to Ramsey in a flash to exploit his misjudgment on Gabriel Paulista’s poor throw-in on halfway and he lost Francis Coquelin with a nice stop-and-go move before surging around Shkodran Mustafi. Capoue’s shot hit Cech and it broke kindly for Deeney, who tapped home.
Arsenal were a shambles in the first half – hesitant and loose, their game pockmarked by heavy touches and bad passes. Watford, though, deserve credit for the way they pressed them from their stride. Deeney ran himself into the ground, Capoue was excellent while M’Baye Niang, the loan signing from Milan, played his part off the left flank.
Arsenal’s desperation was summed up when Nacho Monreal dived in the 25th minute in a bid to win a penalty off from Craig Cathcart – he was correctly booked – while Cech saved smartly from Sebastian Prodl’s looping header and Daryl Janmaat’s blast.
Wenger sent on Theo Walcott for the anonymous Olivier Giroud at half-time and with Alexis Sánchez moved up front they were transformed. The intensity was back and the home crowd rallied behind them. Watford’s four-man defence, comprising entirely centre-halves, were asked a simple question. Could they hang on?
The chances came at quite the rate early in the second-half – two for Walcott, one of which Heurelho Gomes saved; one for Iwobi, which saw the goalkeeper shoot out an arm to stop and one for Mesut Özil, which also worked Gomes.
Iwobi scored with a volley back into the far corner after dynamic work from Sánchez and it was game on but Arsenal stalled. Wenger complained about being unlucky and how Arsenal did not deserve to lose. The words rang hollow.
|Troy Deeney, second left, slots his shot past Arsenal’s Petr Cech to score Watford’s second goal. Photograph: Catherine Ivill/Getty Images|
Dead and buried: Arsenal are out of Premier League title race
This was the game many Arsenal fans had already described as a foregone conclusion. The Premier League’s second-placed team on a run of seven unbeaten games against a relegation-threatened side who had just been knocked out of the FA Cup by League One opposition.
Most supporters understandably had one eye on Saturday’s crucial match with Chelsea at Stamford Bridge but a dismal 2-1 defeat in rainy north London has surely now lessened the impact which Saturday’s game will have.
Arsene Wenger rightly boasted about Arsenal’s plethora of attacking options following the thrashing of Southampton on Saturday but in the first half at Emirates Stadium he witnessed his side fail to muster a shot on target for the third league game this season. The likes of Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil were back in the team, but struggled against Watford’s organised, solid defence which was even better protected by their midfield lynchpin Etienne Capoue.
In-form striker Olivier Giroud was another returnee to the starting XI who had a minimal impact and it’s ironic that he recently demanded his team-mates to be “stronger at the beginning of games because I'm not going to score goals in the last minute every week”. That advice clearly fell on deaf ears as the Gunners were stunned by Walter Mazzarri’s sucker-punches from Younes Kaboul and Troy Deeney.
Perhaps more worryingly is the inevitability of Arsenal’s annual injury crisis which seems to have taken its place just as everyone except Santi Cazorla was deemed fully fit.
Aaron Ramsey was forced off with an all-too familiar muscular problem in the first half and his replacement Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain appeared to limp for periods of the second half. Wenger’s side are without Mohamed Elneny, who is at the African Cup of Nations, the aforementioned Cazorla and much-needed Jack Wilshere, who is flourishing in Bournemouth’s midfield during his season-long loan deal.
From potentially closing the gap on Chelsea ahead of Saturday’s game to looking dead and buried in the title race, the problems now appear to be mounting up for a manager who still has two games left of his touchline ban to serve in the Premier League.
For Arsenal and their players it must feel like deja vu - a title challenge slipping away before it’s even begun.
Arsenal 1 Watford 2: Hosts' title challenge looks to be over after shock defeat at the Emirates
famous, famous victory for Watford and an infamous performance from Arsenal who lost a golden opportunity in the Premier League title race with a display that was base. They deservedly lost. They can have no dispute; no complaint over that because of their own carelessness. With Arsene Wenger banned from the touchline they lost touch.
This was Watford’s first win in eight Premier League games and there will be no threat of relegation if they maintain these determined heights while Arsenal will be subsumed into another period of angst as they prepare to travel to Chelsea this Saturday. Arsenal were far better in an increasingly desperate second-half but Watford with-held the onslaught. This time there was no comeback, no late goals – only a chorus of home disapproval at the sodden end.
Arsenal were sloppy from the off; conceding a series of careless free-kicks – in particular by Shkodran Mustafi – and then conceding a goal. Again it was Mustafi who erred and this time Tom Cleverley tapped the ball sideways for Younes Kaboul to thump it from 25 yards with his shot deceiving Petr Cech and cradling into the net. The deception was caused by a deflection, taking a change of direction off Aaron Ramsey to wrong-foot the goalkeeper.
It was also the first ever time Watford had led Arsenal in a Premier League game. They were buoyed. Watford had made a bristling start, belying their recent form and astonishingly doubled their advantage when they were again aided by Arsenal’s carelessness.
Again Mustafi was involved, allowing Etienne Capoue to run past him and that came after an appalling throw-in, a mix-up between Aaron Ramsey and Gabriel, giving the ball to the Watford midfielder. Capoue ran on, superbly, skilfully, beating Francis Coquelin and then Mustafi and his eventual shot was parried by Cech but squirmed across goal.
There were three, four Arsenal defenders there but Troy Deeney wanted it more and hurtled in to turn the ball home. Already there was a whiff of anger; a mood of frustration at the Emirates with just two minutes and 54 seconds between the goals and the only consolation for Arsenal being they had to surely improve and also had plenty of time to do it.
They also had to make a change with Ramsey’s calf giving up on him (it appeared to have happened when he stretched for Gabriel’s throw-in). The midfielder puffed out his cheeks in disbelief, at another injury and probably also at the score-line, as he trudged off.
Watford had cashed in – and not just with the sale confirmed before kick-off of striker Odion Ighalo to Chinese Super League club Changchun Yatai for a fee that could rise as high as £25million – with loan signing, from AC Milan, M’Baye Niang, making his debut and funnelling back, working hard as Arsenal finally provided some threat.
What was Arsene Wenger’s reaction? This was the second game of his four-match touchline ban for pushing the fourth official, and he was picking out, murky in the stands, by the cameras. His mood would have been even darker than the images with Nacho Montreal then cautioned for a dive inside the penalty area before Watford threatened again with Capoue once more running past Coquelin and crossing deep for Sebastian Prodl to arc a powerful header back across goal.
Cech tipped it over and then, from the corner, Olivier Giroud deflected Miguel Britos’s fierce angled drive. There was another chance, a snap-shot from Daryl Janmaat, set up by Deeney, beaten away by Cech.
At half-time the boos rang out. Theo Walcott, scorer of a hat-trick against Southampton in the FA Cup last weekend, started on the bench but went through his paces during the break. He came on - Giroud was replaced – and his first involvement was to flash a low shot wide and then went even closer, forcing a fine block from goalkeeper Heurelho Gomes, when teed up by Mesut Ozil. Still he should have scored and it was Arsenal’s first solid opportunity. There was then a second with Sanchez backheeling into Alex Iwobi’s path only for Gomes to shoot out a hand and save his low effort.
The siege was on. Arsenal, finally, had some momentum and then they had a goal. As they claimed a penalty they played on with Sanchez working his way into the area and scooping the ball beyond the far post where Iwobi guided a volley back across goal and into the net – after Craig Cathcart inexplicably allowed it to run past him.