Ways Arsenal could line up against Watford, As Arsenal return from their international break on Sunday with what is rarely a straightforward fixture for the Gunners as they travel to Watford.
Arsenal return from their international break on Sunday with what is rarely a straightforward fixture for the Gunners as they travel to Watford.
The Hornets may have won only three of 13 games between these two since the turn of the century, but Arsenal have often needed an almighty slice of luck to depart Vicarage Road with the points, never more so than when Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang blocked Ben Foster’s clearing kick into the Watford net in these two sides’ last meeting.
To add a complicating factor to the occasion, Unai Emery will need to break something of a personal duck against the returning Watford boss Quique Sanchez Flores. The two may have never pitted wits against each other in the Premier League, but they have had seven encounters in La Liga and European competitions.
Only one of them has ended in victory for Emery while Flores has claimed three wins and three draws from the remaining fixtures. And while the Watford boss may have lost both his league meetings with Arsenal in his first spell in charge, his side famously ended Arsene Wenger’s hopes of a third straight FA Cup triumph.
so how should Emery go about planning to take on Watford?
Going on the attack
As Emery professes his desire to play offensive football it seems natural that his first choice frontline will be the one he unleashed for the first time against Tottenham, Alexandre Lacazette flanked by Aubameyang and Nicolas Pepe.
There were signs of burgeoning understanding between the trio in the north London derby, and that will only have been improved after a week of working on the training ground.
Pepe withdrew from international duty with the Ivory Coast to work on his fitness at London Colney where he will be joined by Lacazette and Aubameyang, neither of whom have been involved during the international break.
While there is little cause for concern about setting out with that attack against Watford Emery might find himself facing a similar headache in midfield to that which Tottenham gave him.
Naming Mesut Ozil or Dani Ceballos in the centre of the pitch certainly adds a creative spark but does it run the risk of leaving Arsenal outnumbered in crucial areas of the field, particularly with the Hornets possibly naming a 3-5-2?
If so will a midfield of Granit Xhaka, Lucas Torreira and Matteo Guendouzi lack the creative spark to get through the defence?
And if Arsenal unleashes Aubameyang, Pepe and Lacazette with an incisive midfield in behind is there all that much Watford can do to stop them but simply hope for the best?
Packing the middle
However, we know that Emery is a manager who looks to tailor his approach to his opposition, and it does not take much imagination to see where Watford can win a game against Arsenal.
Their midfield is likely to include both Etienne Capoue and Abdoulaye Doucoure if Quique Sanchez Flores continues with the 3-5-2 his predecessor Javi Gracia utilised then Will Hughes might also be added to the mix.
It is not a midfield that is overpowered, and if Arsenal lacks strength and guile in the middle of the pitch, it is easy to see the visitors finding themselves on the back foot throughout the game.
As such, there is undeniable value in Emery reprising the midfield he deployed to such mixed fortunes at Anfield and fielding a midfield diamond and just two forwards.
It may not be perfectly designed to allow Arsenal to play their best game, but it does do an excellent job of nullifying opponents whose most dangerous actions come through the middle of the pitch.
Add the shuttling presence of Torreira, confined to the bench at Anfield, and there might not be the same chasm between attack and defence as there often was away to Liverpool.
Alternatively, name both Ceballos and Ozil in this side, the latter as the No.10 and the other creating from deep, and the opportunities to break with incision would be numerous.
However, naming a string of central midfielders comes with a problem for Emery. He cannot be sure how many of them will be fit this weekend.
Both Xhaka and Torreira have picked up knocks during the international break, and though they are not thought to be severe issues if both players were to be sidelined this week, it might be an unwise risk.
Bringing back the back three
Unleashing the Pepe-Lacazette-Aubameyang trident would be Arsenal playing to their strengths, but it would not offer much to mitigate that common weakness in central defence.
It may be very early in David Luiz’s career in north London, but the harsh reality is he looks the same player in red that he did in blue: brilliant at times but far too error-prone.
There is a way around Luiz’s moments of madness, as Antonio Conte discovered, put him in a back three.
It is a system that is far from popular at Arsenal but, looking at the players Emery has available to him, may make a lot of sense as they look to arrest a run of six goals conceded in their last three games.
Luiz can drop deep and focus both on building up play and sweeping up in behind two more aggressive ball-winners ahead of him, roles Sokratis Papastathopoulos and Calum Chambers or perhaps even a returning Rob Holding are well-placed to fulfil.
Meanwhile, Emery has already admitted this summer that Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Sead Kolasinac are better wing-backs than they are full-backs.
A back three would not preclude playing the trio of forwards up top with a two-person midfield bridging the gap. It is not a simplified system and not Emery’s preferred option, but for the time being, it might be Arsenal’s best bet for tightening things up.