It seems a rather obvious point to make, that Arsenal are not as good without their two best players in the side. Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil are two of the club’s five most expensive transfers ever, the signings around which Arsene Wenger has built his latest squad. One is their best goalscorer and best player, the other their lead chance creator.
But with Wenger’s concession this week that both or either could be sold in January, it is difficult not to view the remainder of Arsenal’s season with a different slant. The Gunners face an unprecedented situation: an elite Premier League club tasked with challenging on four fronts, safe in the knowledge that their two best players are likely to leave in the summer. They must compete in the present, but it feels as though the spotlight is only ever on their future.
Saturday evening’s fixture against Watford provided the latest peek behind that particular curtain. Since August 2014, Arsenal have played just four Premier League fixtures in which both Sanchez and Ozil have not started; two have come this season, with Wenger clearly using the trial of a team without them before having to buy the full version next summer. And as encouraging as the performance was without either against Chelsea, the defeat at Vicarage Road was damning.
Arsenal were slow against Watford: slow in their build-up play, slow to notice the constant runs and movement of Alexandre Lacazette, slow to react to the game-changing introduction of Troy Deeney. Andre Gray had been ineffective for the first 63 minutes but Deeney posed an altogether more different proposition for the final half hour. He scored the equaliser from the penalty spot, and had a crucial hand in Tom Cleverley’s winner.
It felt as though Arsenal might have sleepwalked to another three points. Their approach was largely disjointed, Granit Xhaka failing to find the openings from deep and Mohamed Elneny, as he does, always choosing the sideways pass. Lacazette, Danny Welbeck and Alex Iwobi were able and willing runners, but quality was lacking going forward.
LOOK AT XHAKA. pic.twitter.com/nGOXYb9lQh
— David (@DerKopite) October 14, 2017
The breakthrough came from Per Mertesacker, but it required a corner for Arsenal to make their possession count. Watford were lacklustre in the first half, failing to have a single shot on target. A team with title ambitions would have punished them; Manchester City certainly did.
When Ozil was brought on with an hour played, Arsenal improved. There was a link from midfield to attack, more cohesion going forward. The German created two goalscoring chances – only Welbeck (3) managed more throughout the whole game – and he lifted the general quality. He will be the first to admit that he should have done much better when provided with the opportunity to score himself, Heurelho Gomes saving his effort when played through on goal, but the blame for this defeat cannot rest on his shoulders.
“Without these two, Arsenal were much better defensively,” said Martin Keown after Arsenal’s 0-0 draw with Chelsea in September, sans both Sanchez and Ozil. He was echoing the thoughts of the majority: that Arsenal were in safe hands with or without their star duo. “How many times do you see Sanchez flying forward to press and no one coming to join him? Arsene Wenger has not been brave enough to leave out Ozil but how much does he offer the team?”
Keeping a clean sheet against Chelsea in a diligent defensive performance is one thing; it is easier to coach pressing as a team than it is to coach breaking down a staunch defence. But one finds it easier to raise their game at Stamford Bridge than they do at Vicarage Road. Arsenal were handed the initiative on Saturday and without either Sanchez or Ozil to carry that burden, they floundered and failed.
“For this Arsenal team, it was a chance to step up and prove that they did not need Sanchez and Ozil to perform,” Keown would add last month, signalling that the future was bright for the Gunners. This defeat showed it is anything but.