Watford 1 Arsenal 3: Typical Arsene Wenger, stubbornly turning logic on its head.
While Arsenal’s supporters and critics agreed that he needed to strengthen his defence and attack, after missing out on the Premier League title yet again, Wenger went out and signed another midfielder.
Except Granit Xhaka is not just another midfielder, certainly not in the mould of typical Arsenal midfielders, short-passing, short in stature, attacking by nature. Xhaka is cut from different cloth to the likes of Jack Wilshere, Santi Cazorla, and Aaron Ramsey, not just because as a strapping six-footer, he towers over them, but his natural game is to sit behind the play and dictate events from in front of the back four.
When Wenger paid Borussia Moenchengladbach €35m at the start of the summer, his biggest ever outlay after Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez, many Arsenal fans wondered why the Frenchman was spending so much to strengthen an area that was already chock full of talent.
Now, after a masterclass at Watford, Xhaka has shown them that he could become this generation’s Emmanuel Petit, bringing to the team a calm presence at the heart of midfield, and certainly something different in his range of passing. They are big boots for the 23-year-old Swiss to fill, but Wenger is happy to invite comparisons with the man who won the double with Arsenal and both the World Cup and Euro 2000 with France.
“He is a guy who plays naturally behind the ball, a bit similar to Petit in the way he plays football,” said the manager, after Arsenal cruised to victory at Vicarage Road against an admittedly patched-up and poor Watford side.
“He likes to sit, give good long balls and be available for the centre-backs. He has a good mixture of short and long balls, and in midfield it is important for us to sometimes stretch defenders. We have a game that is based on shorter passes than other teams so sometimes to have a player who can kick the longer ball gives us a chance to get some oxygen and some space.”
Arsenal certainly had plenty of space against Watford as they raced into a 3-0 lead inside 45 minutes, effectively securing their first win of the season before half-time.
Watford are going through wholesale changes yet again, with a new manager in Walter Mazzarri and another raft of new players. The Italian’s experiment with 3-5-2 created a monster of Frankenstein proportions against Arsenal, whose movement and passing shredded a defence that included two debutants, Younes Kaboul and Christian Kabasele.
Soon after kick-off, Ozil put the ball in the net, only to be called offside before crossing for Sanchez, who was clattered by Nordin Amrabat. Cazorla converted the penalty. Heurelho Gomes denied both Theo Walcott and Sanchez before Sanchez scored his first of the season, forcing the ball in from Walcott’s cross. Sanchez then turned provider with a cross that Ozil was allowed to head home unmarked in first-half stoppage time, as the home side and referee Kevin Friend were booed off.
Mazzarri made changes, switching to 4-4-2 and sending on three more debutants, and one of them, Roberto Pereyra, pulled a goal back in the 57th minute. Arsenal had taken their foot off the gas by this stage and might have paid for it if Petr Cech had not been at his sharpest, bailing out a backline that would have been punished by a more clinical side.
The arrival of Shkodran Mustafi should help in that department. The German international’s transfer from Valencia should be completed today, along with the signing of striker Lucas Perez from Deportivo La Coruna for combined fees close to €60m, banishing Wenger’s reputation for not spending big money.
But Xhaka was always his priority. “We tried for him in December last year,” he said “He already has experience abroad and that is reassuring. He was captain at his young age at Monchengladbach, which is not a small club, so he has leadership qualities.”
At 23, he is also the right age, and with Mustafi just 24, Wenger appears to be planning for a longer term future at the Emirates.
“We lost three midfielders last year, had many injuries and we have some uncertainties about longer-term injuries. If you project a bit for a longer future, we have players close to 30 and close to 20, but not many at the mid-range of 24, 25 which I think is important.”
Gomes 6; Kaboul 6 Prodl 5 Kabasele 5 (Janmaat 51); Amrabat 6 (Success 75) Guedioura 5 (Pereyra 46) Behrami 5 Capoue 6 Holebas 6; Deeney 5 Ighalo 5
Cech 7; Bellerin 7 Holding 6 Koscielny 6 Monreal 6 (Gibbs 74); Cazorla 8 Xhaka 8; Walcott 6 Ozil 8 (Wilshere 69) Oxlade-Chamberlain 6 (Elneney 69); Sanchez 7
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