Sunday 20 October 2019

Arsenal keen to cure their travel woes

Arsenal manager Unai Emery.
Arsenal manager Unai Emery.

Sam Dean

There is something poetic about the timing of Arsenal's trip to Vicarage Road tomorrow. At the precise moment in their campaign when they will face the greatest test of their resolve, Unai Emery takes his side back to the place where their character was so famously dismissed a season ago.

Troy Deeney's withering assessment of Arsenal's spirit in this fixture last season, when Arsene Wenger was still in charge, will linger in the minds of those who were on the receiving end of that Watford battering. "I'm not going to be the one to tell Mr Wenger about himself, but there is a reason why they lost," said Deeney, cocking the metaphorical fist before delivering the knockout blow. "It's [having] a bit of cojones. Whenever I play them, I think: 'Let me whack the first one and see who wants it.'"

The question to Arsenal, then, is: how's your mettle? Not just at Vicarage Road tomorrow night, but also in Napoli's San Paolo Stadium on Thursday, where Emery's side will have to weather an Italian storm if they are to preserve their first-leg lead in the Europa League quarter-final.

Given their away form, only a brave man would bet against Arsenal losing to Watford. This is the type of occasion in which they have struggled for months, and the sort of game they have failed to win all season.

Emery's side have won only once away in the Premier League since November, and that was against Huddersfield. Their other victories on the road this season have come against Bournemouth (12th), Newcastle (15th), Cardiff (18th) and Fulham (relegated). Watford are on a different level.

Look at last week's defeat by Everton. Arsenal were cowed by Dominic Calvert-Lewin, whose dominance of long aerial passes will not have gone unnoticed by Deeney.

From a tactical perspective, the problem is easy enough to identify. Emery's Arsenal have been trained to press, to hound teams high up the field in pursuit of possession. If the ball is pumped 50 yards towards their centre-backs, they cannot do that. The patterns of play are different, and the combative nature of the match is less familiar to Emery. It is no coincidence that Arsenal's best performances this season have come against the better teams who generally try to play passing football.

Emery believes there is a more fundamental failing, though: mentality.

Speaking after Thursday's 2-0 win over Napoli, he grew far more animated than usual when describing how, away from home, his players must match the "100 per cent motivation and ambition" of their opponents.

"We can see two things," Emery added later. "One is the amazing response at home, big matches and big results. Away we are doing sometimes good matches, but in other moments the opposition are being more competitive than us."

For all the optimism that comes with their home form, these admissions cause concern. Arsenal's season will rest on whether they solve the problem and, as Deeney puts it, show some "cojones".


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