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Monday, May 23, 2022

Gabriel Martinelli sends Arsenal fourth despite Watford fightback | Premier League

A few moments before full time, the sun finally beamed through the Hertfordshire sky and bathed Vicarage Road in the gold of early spring. Watford usually lay claim to that colour but it is Arsenal who bask in a warm glow these days. This was not their most commanding performance but, taking the three scintillating goals that sealed things into account, it was among their more clinical work; it put them into the top four with games in hand on most teams around them and showcased a set of attacking talents that would look perfectly at home in the Champions League.

The number of players better than Bukayo Saka in the top flight at this point could possibly be counted on one hand. He was outstanding once again here, scoring Arsenal’s second goal and playing a crucial role in their others, but others stepped up too.

Martin Ødegaard showed a finishing touch to match his bewitching string-pulling in striking the first blow while Alexandre Lacazette, wayward in front of goal but wonderfully in sync with his back to it, was on hand with two assists. Gabriel Martinelli offered another demonstration of his quality and, with four wins on the bounce, Arsenal are flying.

If there is to be a caveat, it is that those victories have all been by a single goal and only the defeat of Brentford felt comfortable throughout. Mikel Arteta knows that and did not depart feeling especially happy; Watford at least matched the number of openings his side created and they will need to rediscover their defensive resilience when tougher assignments, of which there remain many, come around.

“We were really good going forward and offensively we had the right energy,” Arteta said. “But we didn’t have the same energy and commitment defensively and when that happens, to win away from home you are going to suffer.”

As Arteta pointed out, Arsenal were within a better-timed run by Emmanuel Dennis of going behind inside 16 seconds. The tone had been set for an open first half that was illuminated by a series of memorable strikes. Ødegaard’s fifth-minute opener was the fruit of a stunning escalation in speed and control. The route to goal looked complicated when Saka took the ball near the right touchline, but a sharp exchange of passes with the Norwegian sent him into space. As Saka assessed his options, Ødegaard had kept running into the box; he took the resulting cutback and, keeping his cool under pressure, found the bottom corner with precision.

Bukayo Saka points to the skies after making it 2-1 to Arsenal
Bukayo Saka points to the skies after making it 2-1 to Arsenal. Photograph: Charlotte Wilson/Offside/Getty Images

That was quickly topped by a stunning overhead kick from Cucho Hernández, who might have seemed on a hiding to nothing deputising for the injured Ismaïla Sarr but more than matched anything his teammate can do. Kiko Femenía was sent to the byline after Moussa Sissoko had done well to hold onto the ball and his chipped cross was met near the penalty spot by the forward, who provided a textbook exhibition of contortion and power with an acrobatic finish that gave Aaron Ramsdale no prospect of intervening.

Watford looked slightly more likely to score until, on the half-hour mark, Saka showed much of what he does so wonderfully. He had pressed ferociously since kick-off and, when Tom Cleverley dwelled for too long 10 yards outside Watford’s penalty area, was quick to steal possession. He played it into Lacazette instantly, continuing his run and receiving a backheeled return. A first-time finish sent Ben Foster the wrong way; Arteta’s response to the goal was to tell his players to switch on, but he had just seen the kind of combination that turns games around.

“Sometimes when you don’t have enough to win the match, it’s about what they have between them that gives you the edge to somehow win the match,” he said. It helps if you have a manager who can provide pre-assists too. Seven minutes into the second half, Arteta raced out of his technical area and picked up an Imran Louza pass that had drifted out of play, pressing the ball into Saka’s hands urgently. The resulting throw-in ended up with Cédric Soares and then, via more smooth interplay from Ødegaard and Lacazette, at Martinelli’s feet for a swept finish that bore similarity to that of Saka.

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Chances were missed at both ends after that and there was rancour when Watford’s fans showed loud disapproval at Roy Hodgson’s substitution of Louza. “I’ve got to keep trying to pick the team to win games and not the team the fans would like to see because I don’t trust their judgment all the time,” Hodgson said. “I don’t think I can ask any more of the players than what they gave today.”

Sissoko squeezed in to raise late hopes of a point but, as Hodgson said, Watford’s relegation race will be won or lost against teams closer to them. Arsenal might say the same of their fellow contenders at the top, but pole position for fourth is firmly theirs.

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