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  • Julian Taylor at Emirates Stadium

Smith-Rowe ends Watford resistance as Arsenal’s momentum continues

By Julian Taylor at The Emirates

Arsenal 1 Watford 0

A pacey, yet far from pretty, affair in north London, was finally and singularly decorated by Emile Smith-Rowe. The vibrant Arsenal midfielder’s strike in the second half proved sufficient to keep his side's resurgence on track.

A cool despatch from the 21 year old carved out all three points in hard-earned fashion – although it should really have been more comfortable for the Gunners.

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang had scored six goals in five Premier League appearances against the visitors – yet he was denied from the penalty spot by the composed Watford keeper Ben Foster with Arsenal attempting to break through in a thrawny first half.

Watford’s resilience here was impressive at times, even if they were bereft of real threat at the other end.

A litany of yellow cards dispensed was an indicator of the true nature of this clash – along with a late red card for Watford’s Juraj Kucka. But this was, essentially, a one goal domination from the hosts.

Arsenal’s fears of nothing materialising were eventually swept away in 56 minutes - Smith-Rowe’s timely appearance a huge relief.

Mikel Arteta's most burgeoning of young guns kept his cool to place an instinctive, low slung effort when presented with a rare loose ball 20 yards out, after good work by Gabriel. How fitting that Smith-Rowe was the scorer of the club’s 100th Premier League goal under the manager.

The good news, pre-match, for the north Londoners was the return to the squad for Kieran Tierney. The Scotland international supplies such a regular and reliable surge down the left flank and his inclusion on the bench gave fans a boost. Watford, meanwhile, arrived at the Emirates in skittish mood under the watchful eye of Claudio Ranieri, appointed last month.

Which aspect of the Hornets would emerge, since the wily Italian’s arrival? The team which slumped to both Liverpool and Southampton, or the one that put five past Everton at Goodison Park? A 4-1-4-1 formation hinted at a team prepared for a long afternoon.

Gunner offensive

Considering their run of seven games unbeaten as the Arteta master plan quietly and efficiently appears to take shape, it was unsurprising that Arsenal went on an early offensive.

And referee Kevin Friend was called into a major decision in only six minutes when he – assisted by VAR – ruled out a goal by Bukaya Saka. The England star forced the ball home from close range, following a scuffed pass from Alexandre Lacazette, but the effort was proven to be offside.

The Hornets impressively weathered the early Arsenal storms, putting bodies on the line and their steely organisation was all too apparent, even if they were notably lacking in forward areas.

However, when the need arises at the other end, there is always Foster to draw the sting out of the Gunners, as he was required to do in the 35th minute when the hosts were awarded a penalty. With the ball dropping aimlessly in the air, a clumsy challenge by Danny Rose on Lacazette resulted in the spot kick. A chance for Arsenal to make their diligence matter.

Misfiring Auba

Aubameyang took aim, low and hard down to the left – but the veteran Watford keeper kept his cool to parry and then grab the ball, with the Gunners’ captain the picture of frustration.

It was a moment to quieten the Emirates crowd in an instant, Foster’s presence giving rise to the Hornets’ hopes of taking something from an increasingly tetchy game. Still, a low shot which went inches past the post by Kucka in 38 minutes was the first real threat by Ranieri’s men. Kucka was putting himself about all over the park, the 34 year old Slovak still a willing operator for the cause. Saka was the liveliest of Arteta’s performers down the right, meanwhile, with the occasional prompting by the industrious Smith-Rowe.

Foster’s first half hex against the Gunners continued; a smart save three minutes before the break from a Gabriel header added to the collective Arsenal groans in the 59,833 crowd.

The hosts needed patience – and it was eventually vindicated, Smith-Rowe slotted home to spark a cameo of sheer ecstasy from Arteta on the touchline when it was perhaps looking like one of those forlorn afternoons. There have been far too many of them in this part of north London in recent seasons, but Arsenal’s focus is, gradually, paying off.

With Watford’s resistance broken, could they respond? Arsenal keeper Aaron Ramsdale thwarted Leicester on several occasions last week, but this was to prove a much quieter game for him. As a collective, this Arsenal unit defended well when required.

Arteta replaced Lacazette with Martin Odegaard in the 68th minute to some freshness, as well as a desire to stop the Hornets at source. Aubameyang then had the ball in the net from a yard out, only for the hit man to fall foul of VAR with Arsenal aiming to officially kill the contest.

Watford looked jaded in the latter stages, and never looked like a side capable of grabbing a surprise equaliser. With a minute to go, Kucka saw red for a second bookable offence, after clattering into Nuno Tavares on the edge of the visitors’ penalty area.

So Arsenal move on. For the Hornets, there is a better chance that their next outing, against Manchester United at home, post-international break, will prove to be more fruitful.

Gunners: Ramsdale, White, Gabriel, Tavares, Saka (Martinelli 90), Lacazette (Odegaard 68), Smith-Rowe (Elneny86), Maitland-Niles. Tomiyasu, Lokonga, Aubameyang

Hornets: Foster, Rose, Cathcart (Fletcher 90), Tufan, Nkoulou, Femenia, Sissoko, Kucka, Sarr, King, Dennis (Hernandez 74)

Attendance: 59,833


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