Match Report: Watford 2-2 Arsenal
By Kevin Affleck
Ever had that feeling when a draw feels like a win? Yep, me too.
The Hornets picked up a point here, exactly the same as they pocketed at Newcastle, but this one felt different, much different. To the delight of a jumping Vicarage Road, the Hornets showed there is hope, there is belief and that there is genuine reason things will get better if they continue to play with this sort of spirit.
Quique Sanchez Flores has strong thespian links in his family – his famous aunt Lola was a showgirl while his mum was an actress – but it is unsure who is writing his scripts right now. Having conjured up an unlikely homecoming, he choreographed a thrilling comeback here that saw his side come back from the very brink at 2-0 down after 32 minutes to come within a whisker of a win that few could have denied them on the basis of their all-action second-half display.
Tom Cleverley stroked in an equaliser, there was bedlam when Roberto Pereyra won and then converted a penalty while the roof would have come off had a couple of goal-bound shots not struck desperate Arsenal and then Abdoulaye Doucoure scored, as he probably should have done, right at the death. It was terrific stuff and even Sanchez Flores, the coolest man in the place, lost his composure at one point. It was that sort of afternoon. The team were cheered off at full-time and rightly so. They even played the music that is normally associated with a win because that's what it felt like.
It was difficult to be too harsh on the Hornets in the first half. They started well, deploying a low defensive block, playing with intensity and the type of organisation Sanchez Flores likes.
The magnificent Étienne Capoue was everywhere. He was sliding in on the edge of his own box to intercept a pass from Saed Kolašinac, telegraphing a pass bound for Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and setting up an attack that led to Tom Cleverley blasting over and then hitting the pass of the half, and possibly the match, with a cross-field pin-seeker containing a bit of sidespin that fell perfectly into the path of Deulofeu. He was everywhere and everything Watford did well went through the Frenchman.
So it was particularly rough on the captain when Aubameyang pounced for the opener after 22 minutes. If that goal had the Hornets rocking and wobbling, then the second one, ten minutes later from the same player, put them firmly on the ropes. It was a mighty long way back from there.
Set up to contain and play on the break, the team now had to come out of their shell and play with a different mindset. It wasn't supposed to be like this in Sanchez Flores' game-plan.
After recalibrating, Deulofeu smashed one at Bernd Leno, Andre Gray lashed one into the side-netting and then Deulofeu, on reflection, might have wondered if he should have gone down following a challenge from David Luiz after a coruscating run into the box. It was all ifs, buts and maybes.
The Hornets needed a break, they needed something to fall their way and they got it nine minutes after the break. There was clearly a message at the break to press higher and faster and it paid off. From an overelaborate goal-kick by the visitors, Deulofeu nipped in, the ball fell to Cleverley and from a similar distance to the one he lashed in against the same opposition in October 2017, he stroked the Hornets back into the game. Game on.
Sensing one of those comebacks, Sanchez Flores went for broke, fully released the handbrake and brought on Ismaïla Sarr and Roberto Pereyra. It wouldn't have been in the script but that went out the window just past the half-hour mark.
Cutting in from the left, Deulofeu ripped one past the far post, Kiko Femenía crashed one over from the other side and then Deulofeu threaded one through the eye of a needle for Sarr to drag wide. Pereyra was then a whisker away from finding the bottom corner with a deft flick. It was all Watford.
Unai Emery sensed danger, throwing on Joe Willock, then Lucas Torreira and then Reiss Nelson. The tactic was clear: to stiffen the midfield and halt the momentum. It didn't make a jot of difference as the Hornets had their bit between their teeth. There was no stopping them.
Pereyra is an absolute master at winning fouls and he cleverly won a penalty nine minutes from time. David Luiz stuck his leg out and Pereyra went over it. Anthony Taylor took his time but he knew the decision he had to make. Pereyra stood at the top of his mark, looked upwards and then cooly stepped up and sent Leno the wrong way. It was a penalty of the highest class under the highest pressure.
It could have got even better. The excellent Cleverley couldn't believe his goal-bound shot struck the flying Luiz and then, right at the death, Doucourè could only find Leno when just over six yards out. That would have the perfect ending, the stuff dreams are made of but it's all about small steps right now. We'd all have taken that at the start of the game and especially after half an hour.
HORNETS: Foster, Femenía, Dawson, Kabasele, Holebas; Doucourè, Capoue, Cleverley; Hughes (Pereyra 63), Deulofeu, Gray (Sarr 54). Subs: Gomes, Janmaat, Mariappa, Chalobah, Foulquier, Pereyra.