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Watford v Arsenal
Vicarage Road, Sunday 15th September, kick off 4:30pm

by John Spillane

Four games into the new season and with the international break came the first Premier league managerial casualty.

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Bottom of the table Watford, who reached the FA Cup final and finished 11th, their highest ever position in the EPL a year ago, decided it was time to make a change. Out went Javi Gracia and back in is Quique Sanchez Flores, who left after the 2015/16 campaign having finished 13th and reached a cup semi final. After the immediate shock, going by the previous actions of the Pozzo family, the only real surprise really was that Gracia has left at this time and not three months previously. After a really good start to his stewardship results tailed off and the poor league form was overshadowed by the run to the Cup final. The joy of getting to Wembley was wiped out by the 6-0 loss on the day to Manchester City and the immediate future of the manager came under scrutiny.

With the benefit of a reasonable opening schedule, Brighton (h) 0-3, Everton (a) 0-1, West Ham (h) 1-3 and Newcastle (a) 1-1, a return of more than a solitary point would have been expected. Other than the Brighton game there has been some misfortune with subsequent results, but they have now lost nine of the last 12 and the fear of dropping out of the big money league forced the owners to act before the problems became insurmountable. With the Arsenal game followed by away trips to Manchester City and Wolves it is not the soft start that many would have chosen. The injury to captain and talisman Troy Deeney, as well as the below par form of Gerard Deulofeu has not helped matters at the top end of the field. Surprisingly the main cause for concern has been at the back. Conceding three at home to both Brighton and West Ham is not a recipe for success and may well be the starting point for the more defensively minded Sanchez Flores.

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Fifth placed Arsenal (W2, D1, L1) continue to look strong going forward but suspect defensively, which will be enough to overcome weaker sides, but is unlikely to return them to the coveted "top four". If there is to be a third successive season in the Europa league the opportunity to sign the players of the quality to make them realistic challengers will further diminish. Dani Ceballos (12 month loan from Real Madrid) has added something to the midfield and while Nicholas Pepe, Pierre-Emerik Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette (out until October) are at the club goals will come. In defence Kieran Tierney and Hector Bellerin are approaching match fitness but the main worry remains in central defence and the midfield cover. The eventual return of Rob Holding may tighten things up, but for now Lucas Torreira and Matteo Guendouzi need to add more to the midfield protection. After more than a year at the club coach Unai Emery would have hoped and been expected to have developed the team further and there are growing criticisms that not much has changed tactically or results wise since Arsene Wenger left the club.

With Deeney in the side the likelihood of the home side going long and physical would have been expected, in a 4-4-2 formation, but in his absence they could now go with one of Andre Gray or Danny Welbeck, with support coming from Roberto Pereyra and Will Hughes. Watford's best route to goal may come via set pieces with Craig Dawson, Craig Cathcart and Etienne Capoue possessing the size to cause problems for an Arsenal defence of Sead Kolasinac, Sokratis and David Luiz.

Last season the away side came away with a 1-0 success, their 10th victory in the previous 12 meetings, yet the only clean sheet they picked up on their travels in 2018/19. The return of Sanchez Flores, who has a good head to head with Emery (losing just one of seven encounters) should bring a bounce from the team. However for now it is hard to see beyond an eventual, but far from straight forward, victory for Arsenal, as they enter a period of playing five times in 15 days across three competitions.

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