Mavropanos steps up in style
There was much surprise among the Arsenal ranks when Konstantinos Mavropanos stepped off the bus at Vicarage Road, even more so when he was named in Unai Emery’s starting XI. The Gunners head coach had indicated that he would rotate his side with an eye on Thursday’s trip to Naples but no-one expected to see a rookie defender who had only seen 11 minutes of senior action this season enter the fray.
Still this was a reminder of why successive Arsenal coaches have been so enchanted by the 21-year-old, who arrived in January 2018 with a view to being loaned out only to so impress Arsene Wenger that he kept him around. A groin injury means Mavropanos has featured fleetingly under Emery, who is a huge admirer of the fledgling talent.
You could see why. In the cauldron of Vicarage Road Mavropanos was a composed presence, completing 96 per cent of his passes, only losing possession twice and not being afraid to punt the ball out for a corner or throw in if pressure came his way. Admittedly his task was eased by the early red for Watford captain Troy Deeney, but it is not like the rest of his team-mates covered themselves in glory against 10 men.
There were nervy moments, particularly when he bounced off Andre Gray and required smart covering from Nacho Monreal to help him out, but those are to be expected in a first Premier League start for nearly a year. On the basis of last night’s display there is no way he should be waiting that long again.
Emery gets his tactics wrong
The Arsenal head coach’s ability to spot what is not working out for his team and adjust accordingly will win his side plenty of points in the long-run but at Vicarage Road Emery was more hindrance than help to his befuddled side.
The introduction of Mesut Ozil for Lucas Torreira had logic to it even if it did not work out in practice but his decision to replace Mavropanos with midfielder Matteo Guendouzi was clearly not communicated effectively enough to his players, many of whom did not seem to know where they should be playing.
In that time Watford’s pressure grew greater still, quite the achievement against 10 men, as Emery effectively ceded control of the flanks by making Alex Iwobi and Henrikh Mkhitaryan unorthodox wing backs.
Credit to the Arsenal boss both for quickly rectifying his mistake by introducing Ainsley Maitland-Niles and for taking ownership of the issues his side had during his post-match press conference.
“We didn’t control like I wanted to control the match,” he said. “We are thinking and I was thinking to play with three centre backs to be enough for our build-up and use one player more in the middle, like Matteo as a possibility to help with [Granit] Xhaka, help with Aaron [Ramsey] and Mesut, to give the security in the midfield.
“But I didn’t do this decision on the pitch with all the control I wanted, so after I changed and recovered a 4-2-3-1 with Ainsley.”
He is, however, lucky that his tinkering did not backfire on him.
Leno shows why Arsenal don’t have to break the bank
Which of these was a more effective piece of spending this summer? Liverpool signing Alisson for £67million? Chelsea spending £72m on Kepa Arrizabalaga? Or Arsenal investing just £22m to get Bernd Leno?
Though there is an argument that Alisson has been the superior goalkeeper this season Arsenal’s number one has certainly been the most improved and ranks impressively high stastically. Only the Liverpool shot-stopper and Hugo Lloris have a higher save percentage than Leno’s 73.5 per cent.
Twice Leno came to Arsenal’s rescue at Vicarage Road, first with an instinctive block on Craig Cathcart’s close-range volley and then a sprawling save to deny Etienne Capoue from a free-kick.
It is worth noting that the German did not start the season as Arsenal’s No.1 and had to wait until Petr Cech gave him an opening. The pressure of having a Premier League great waiting in the wings has certainly pushed Leno on to greater heights.
“He is really playing with confidence and is helping us a lot,” Emery told football.london when asked to reflect on Leno’s improvements.
“I think Bernd is competitive with Cech and also now we are giving them two competitions, the Premier League for Leno and the Europa League for Petr Cech. They are both giving us a lot in goal.”
Mkhitaryan is reliably unreliable
A few weeks ago the case was being made, with some justification, that Mkhitaryan was finally beginning to fulfill his potential in English football and that his improvement post-injury could be enough to carry Arsenal to the top four.
Yet after going missing following a bright start at Everton Mkhitaryan was found wanting all too often at Vicarage Road, not least when he put a tame finishing touch on Alex Iwobi’s exceptional dart down the left, sidefooting the ball far too close to Ben Foster to waste Arsenal’s best chance of a two goal lead.
Aside from thumping another effort way over the bar it is hard to remember what exactly Mkhitaryan achieved in 90 minutes in which he somehow managed to avoid being withdrawn by Emery. Iwobi made seven key passes in the match, his team-mate on the opposite flank completed just one.
Mkhitaryan as a passenger is an all too familiar sight in English football. The talent is still clearly there but it feels inevitable that this country will only really see it in flashes.