Coming into the match, you could excuse Watford for wanting to be a little conservative. They suffered a tough 1-0 loss to Millwall in the FA Cup over the weekend and were facing an Arsenal side who had not lost at home since the first match of the season. Watford had failed to even score in their previous few trips to the Emirates. So Walter Mazzarri drew up a game plan that did the exact opposite of what people may expect.
The Italian manager who made his name in Serie A with his attacking sides brought out an aggressive plan. His team would allow Arsenal the ball but would pressure their midfield to create turnovers at best, chaos at worst. As such Watford trotted out a 4-5-1 formation that included new AC Milan loanee M’Baye Niang making his Premier League debut.
The Watford backline had the set-up of a team looking like they wanted to park the bus. Mazzarri favoured height over agility. The gamble was that Watford pushing up the pitch with their taller centre backs could leave hem exposed to cutting runs from Alexis Sanchez and eventually Theo Walcott. However, players like Sebastian Prodl held their own against Arsenal’s own hold-up player Olivier Giroud, taking away the Arsenal target atop the pitch.
This strategy though would have failed if not for the incredible first half play of the Watford midfield. Vahlon Behrami was the defensive steel that allowed players like Etienne Capoue and Tom Cleverley to be absolute menaces in the midfield. With Troy Deeney and Younes Kaboul lurking, Watford permitted the Arsenal centre backs the ball and turned up the pressure once the first pass was made into the midfield. The second goal perfectly encapsulated this pressure, as Ramsey turned over the ball from a throw-in allowing Capoue to run rampant in a scrambled Arsenal backline. The run through the centre of the pitch eventually led to a Petr Cech save and rebound to an unmarked Deeney.
Mazzarri’s strategy going into the match was sound, considering the circumstances. After the match he admitted that teams cannot go into the Emirates and allow Arsenal to possess the ball unharassed. Where he applied that pressure, though, was what made the difference. Watford conceded the wings defensively gambling correctly that Gabriel would not be an offensive threat and forcing Arsenal to play through Francis Coquelin and Aaron Ramsey. Neither seemed capable of making smart passes forward when swarmed with yellow shirts and the Watford press up the pitch did not allow Arsenal to create any passing rhythm.
Mazzarri was likely banking on a psychological advantage. Arsenal players undoubtedly were looking ahead to this weekend’s match with Chelsea, one that if they would have won could have allowed them to climb back into the title race. Arsene Wenger even admitted after the match that his side were not mentally ready for the match. By pressing early, Watford took advantage of the distraction and did not allow Arsenal to create a rhythm.
As well as that strategy worked in the first half, it almost backfired in the second. Arsenal’s substitution of Walcott for Giroud opened up the field and forced Watford to play back, more than they were comfortable. Mazzarri’s substitutions were predictable and ultimately did not hurt Watford, but I suspect if he would have substituted Stefano Okaka earlier Watford could have relieved some additional Arsenal pressure in the 60th-70th minutes when Deeney was visibly tiring.
Overall, though, it’s hard to criticize too much when your club grabs a much needed win on the road against a top four side. Mazzarri drew up an aggressive strategy that took advantage of circumstances that, if this match were played a week earlier or later, may not have existed.