When it comes to reacting to disappointment, Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger is better than most. Some might suggest that he’s had plenty of practice, but we like to rise above that sort of talk here. Wenger is experienced: he doesn’t panic and, with the notable exception of last season, he can pull his team out of any nosedive and secure a fourth-place finish.
Since losing 4-0 to Liverpool at Anfield in August, Arsenal have picked up 10 points from 12 and kept four clean sheets in the process. They are rediscovering their confidence. And they’ll need it this weekend at Watford.
Marco Silva surprised many this summer when he opted to take the manager’s job at Vicarage Road. With his stock high after somehow cajoling a spirited fight out of a broken Hull City squad who eventually succumbed to relegation, he was not short of options. So why Watford?
Managers do not tend to last too long in Hertfordshire, no matter how good their reputation. Walter Mazzarri, Quique Sanchez Flores and Slavisa Jokanovic were all granted just one full season each, though they are relative veterans compared to their predecessors Bill McKinlay (2 games), Oscar Garcia (4 games, but he left for reasons of ill health) and Beppe Sannino (31 games). With Southampton and Crystal Palace both in the frame, along with the option of sitting tight and waiting for “sacking season” this autumn, why would Silva take his chances with a revolving door club?
But the Portuguese has taken a squad that appeared little more than Troy Deeney and a transient blob of international investment opportunities and he has made a team. Watford rocked Liverpool back on their heels on the opening day, kept three consecutive clean sheets thereafter and, with the exception of being obliterated 6-0 by a rampant Manchester City, have impressed in every game. That they were able to claw back a point in the dying seconds of their clash away at West Bromwich Albion speaks volumes for their character.
Their away record (10 points from a possible 12) is rather better than at home (two from nine), which is odd because Silva’s record at Hull was the exact opposite. However, it is unwise to make big conclusions from small sample sizes. Home and away, Watford present a sizeable challenge.
Watford’s owners, the Pozzo family, have raised a few eyebrows with their commitment to freshening up the manager’s office so regularly, but it’s hard to argue that any of their decisions have backfired. Some former employees can certainly feel hard done by, but the club sails serenely onwards and even reached the FA Cup semifinals in 2015-16 — their first season back in the top flight in almost a decade.
For this, much credit must go to the transfer policy and scouting network that holds up the family’s interests. The same structure that unearthed talents like Alexis Sanchez and Samir Handanovic at Udinese continues to pay dividends.
But it’s Silva who has tied it all together in the most compelling way. Watford are, as Hull were for a time, a dynamic, intense side. Abdoulaye Doucoure and, now that the impressive Nathaniel Chalabah is injured, Etienne Capoue, provide a formidable base in the midfield while Tom Cleverley is slowly rediscovering the form that saw him considered as one of his generation’s most promising talents when at Man United. Andre Carillo offers invention on one flank, but it is the irrepressible Richarlison who has really caught the eye.
A £13 million summer signing from Fluminense, the 20-year-old was unknown to many Premier League fan. He is not unknown now.
Indeed, his form has been so good that reports in South American suggest Brazil manager Tite has earmarked him for a place in the senior squad for the forthcoming friendlies against Japan and England. And Tite, having blown away the rest of the competition in the World Cup qualifiers, is hardly a man desperate for options.
Watford have had good starts before, of course. Under Flores, the Hornets were seventh on Boxing Day, having drawn with Chelsea and beaten Liverpool 3-0 in what was a very merry Christmas period. They would win just two of their next 14 games, plunging down the table in a run of form that would eventually cost the likeable Spanish manager his job.
The Premier League can be cruel and unforgiving to over-confident dressing rooms. But there are signs that Silva is building something a little more resilient. His Watford team are a little like Rafa Benitez’s Newcastle in that there is a palpable sense of unity, clear evidence of organisation and just enough talented players to cause a threat to any opponent. Arguably, in the case of Richarlison in particular, Watford have the higher calibre players.
Arsenal should be wary. Their reaction to disaster at Anfield has been impressive, but they go to Watford without the injured Shkodran Mustafi, perhaps without Laurent Koscielny too, and Sanchez’s mind spinning from Chile’s failure to qualify for the World Cup. This is not the straight-forward fixture it might appear.
Iain Macintosh covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @IainMacintosh.