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With Watford hoping for the fabled ‘new manager bounce’, Arsenal will need to be on their toes at Vicarage Road
Having dumped Javi Gracia over the international break before rekindling their spicy love affair with the dashing Quique Sanchez Flores, Watford will be hoping for the fabled ‘new manager bounce’ (not intended as a euphemism) this weekend.
They may have sleepwalked through the first four games of the new Premier League season, but Watford are still a strong, spiky side with a sprinkle of mercurial stardust across the midfield and attack in the form of Abdoulaye Doucoure, Will Hughes and Gerard Deulofeu. Summer signings Ismaila Sarr and Danny Welbeck are now fully integrated into the team, ostensibly leaving them in a stronger position than they were at the start of the campaign.
In his last season as Watford manager Flores masterminded a shock win against Arsenal in the FA Cup quarter-finals, so Unai Emery should be wary of the majestic silver fox in the opposite dugout on Saturday. The two know each other well from their time in La Liga, with Emery winning only once in seven meetings (Flores won three and three ended in draws).
Despite several high-profile defeats during the late Wenger era, Arsenal haven’t lost to Watford since Troy Deeney famously questioned their “cojones” after a particularly grim loss at Vicarage Road two years ago. Last season’s trip to Hertfordshire was a hard slog, however, and Arsenal will have to be on their toes this time around.
Emery at least has relatively few injury worries going into the weekend. Here’s how he could set up at Vicarage Road.
Though Kieran Tierney and Hector Bellerin are close to returning to full fitness, neither is expected to feature this weekend. After the departures of Nacho Monreal, Carl Jenkinson and Stephan Lichtsteiner over the summer, that leaves Sead Kolasinac and Ainsley Maitland-Niles as the only real options at full-back.
Though his contribution to the back line thus far has been only moderately better than what Shkodran Mustafi has to offer, David Luiz will likely reprise his partnership with Sokratis in the centre of defence. Though Rob Holding could return to the squad this weekend, he will need a gentle reintroduction to the first team and being monstered by Watford’s musclebound enforcers in his first appearance for over nine months would not be ideal.
Probable starters: Leno; Kolasinac, Luiz, Sokratis, Maitland-Niles
Though Emery started a hard-fighting midfield three of Matteo Guendouzi, Granit Xhaka and Lucas Torreira in the north London derby just before the international break, he should be looking to set the tempo against Watford as opposed to entering into a royal rumble with them.
With Guendouzi registering an assist last time out and Emery bizarrely committed to Xhaka’s brand of bull-in-a-china-shop midfield malcoordination, Torreira could well make way for Dani Ceballos. Arsenal were much improved when Ceballos replaced Torreira in the second half against Tottenham and he has the requisite final ball to unpick Watford’s threadbare back line.
Probable starters: Xhaka, Guendouzi, Ceballos
Having finally started Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Alexandre Lacazette and Nicolas Pepe together against Spurs, Emery will have been relatively pleased with the results. Lacazette and Aubameyang both scored with Pepe assisting the former, suggesting Arsenal’s all-star front three is more than just an impractical Football Manager fantasy come to life.
Against a defence which features the workaday talents of Craig Cathcart and Craig Dawson (there are only so many Craigs a team can field before they start to feel the gravitational pull of the Championship), the Auba-Laca-Pepe axis could be extremely dangerous. Reiss Nelson, still looking to make his mark on the side, could feature from the bench.
Probable starters: Aubameyang, Lacazette, Pepe