When you’re pushing for a top four finish in the Premier League, a game against a side second bottom in the table with just one win their last fourteen matches ‘demands’ three points.
This weekend, it’s even more important as the teams around us face difficult encounters. West Ham have already lost to Liverpool, while later today the Manchester derby sees City entertain their local rivals. If results go our way, we’d go above Man Utd in the table, with three games in hand. It’s potentially a huge moment in this season and our chances of Champions League next football next time around.
A constant throughout this campaign is that even when things have been going well, Mikel Arteta has never let himself, or anyone else, get carried away. A near constant refrain of ‘We haven’t done anything yet’ might be seen as overly cautious by some, but it’s abundantly clear he wants to ensure his players remain laser-focused, never looking too far ahead, and taking it – as the old adage goes – one game at a time.
That’s the case for today too, the manager responding to a pre-game question about being fourth:
It’s positive, but the reality is that we are not fourth, we are sixth still and if we win those games – and we have to win those games – we know what we have to do to get there. It is a long way to go, to focus and the only aim is to win against Watford.
In terms of team news, Takehiro Tomiyasu is a ‘doubt’ according to Arteta, which is about as close as he’ll get to confirming someone’s absence, so the only real question is who starts on the left hand side now that both Emile Smith Rowe (recovered from Covid) and Gabriel Martinelli are both available. To be honest, I’m comfortable with either, and it’s a very nice choice for the manager to have. I think my slight preference would be for Smith Rowe, I just think there’s a little more craft and goal threat from him at the moment, but I wouldn’t be upset to see Martinelli there either.
On the right hand side, it will be interesting to see if Bukayo Saka responds to Nicolas Pepe’s excellent cameo against Wolves. I don’t think there’s any doubt he’s first choice in that position, but some measure of competition can’t hurt. Pepe’s contribution to the Wolves win was a bit lost in the late drama of the Lacazette own goal, but he was crucial to taking three points and the fact he was able to make such an impact from the bench is fantastic. We don’t have a great deal of attacking depth among our substitutes, so we’re quite reliant on the couple we have to be able to do something when they come on.
As for Watford, we kind of know how Roy Hodgson is going to set up, and how he traditionally organises his teams for games like this. They might have run the gauntlet a bit last week but they’ll take some heart from holding Man Utd to a 0-0 draw, and I’m always just a bit worried when I see a team on a bad run because we have, in the past, been the Grand Masters of handing sides like that a morale boosting gift.
However, given our recent form, their absences, and everything else, if we can play with the kind of intensity and organisation we have done of late, this is a game we should take three points from. I never take anything for granted in this league, but if we are going to make the top four this season, this is exactly the kind of ‘meat and drink’ fixture we need to get the maximum from. There are more difficult games ahead, so these points are all the more important.
Catch you later for the game.