Story of the match
Since victory over Manchester United in November last year, Watford’s home form has been consistent if not fruitful.
Seven home defeats with 4 goals for and 19 against since then has seen Watford immersed in a Premier League relegation battle and with just 11 games remaining after today, the Hornets find themselves scrambling for points.
Last weeks’ unlikely point away to Manchester United brought the Hornets within three of Everton and safety but with Arsenal looking to leapfrog the Red Devils with victory today, Watford need to turn draws into victories sooner rather than later.
Watford manager, Roy Hodgson made three changes to the side that draw away at Manchester United with Ismaila Sarr (hamstring), Jeremy Ngakia and Joshua King missing out. Joao Pedro, Cucho Hernandez and Kiko Femenia coming into the Hornets’ starting line-up.
Arsenal travelled the short distance north to Hertfordshire looking for their fourth consecutive victory and to move, temporarily at least, into the Champions League places.
Mikel Arteta named an unchanged side that struck a late comeback at home to Wolves in midweek, with Gabriel Martinelli keeping his place alongside Alexandre Lacazette up front, whilst Nicholas Pepe was consigned to the bench.
Ahead of kick-off, players and fans alike stood together with Ukraine but within seconds of kick-off the off-field solidarity dissipated as Watford went on the attack.
With 15 seconds on the clock, Pedro played Emmanuel Dennis through one-on-one with Aaron Ramsdale and calmly slid the ball into the far corner. The stadium erupted only to see a late offside flag raised with Dennis offside by a matter of inches.
Arsenal were sparked into life and went one better four minutes later.
Bukayo Saka played a neat one-two with Martin Ødegaard down the right wing with the former cutting the ball back to his fellow Arsenal midfielder who, like Dennis minutes before, calmly passed the ball into the far corner but this time, the goal stood.
In a spate of one-upmanship, it didn’t take long for Watford to equalise.
In the 11th minute Femenia crossed from the right into Hernandez. With the ball slightly behind him, the young Colombian attempted an audacious over-head kick from 12 yards. With athleticism and precision, the 5ft 9inches 22-year old volleyed the ball past a helpless Ramsdale to send shockwaves around Vicarage Road.
This time, Watford fans could celebrate.
Arsenal created the next chance after 18 minutes as Thomas Partey curled an effort from the edge of the box narrowly wide with Ben Foster beaten as both defences struggled under pressure.
Watford’s front-three continued to cause problems for Arsenal and in the 25th minute Dennis’ strike was fumbled by Ramsdale and desperately scrambled away by the visitors’ defence.
Five minutes later and Arsenal went ahead again.
Another beautiful sequence of one-touch football saw Saka and Lacazette link up with the Frenchman rolling the ball back to Saka on the edge of the box after Cleverley was cheaply dispossessed. Saka sent Foster the wrong way and Arsenal were back in the ascendency.
It proved to be the final chance of note in a frantic first-half with Arsenal deservedly leading 2-1 but Watford holding their own.
Much like the first, it didn’t take long for Arsenal to find their shooting boots.
In the 52nd minute, Arsenal extended their lead in a near carbon-copy of their second goal after more composed one-touch football. This time Lacazette turned provider for Martinelli who curled the ball past a flat-footed Foster for Arsenal’s third.
Watford refused to give up.
Four minutes later and the home side had two good chances to close the gap as Hassane Kamara and then Tom Cleverley snatched at efforts.
Watford went close again in the 71st minute as Femenia flashed a low pass into Dennis across the face of goal. Six yards out with the goal gaping and Ramsdale nowhere in sight, Dennis sliced the ball behind him as a golden chance went begging.
Arsenal nearly punished Watford for their wastefulness in the 81st minute as substitute, Eddie Nketiah struck Foster’s near post but Watford continued to pour forward.
Watford eventually added a second in the 87th minute as Hernandez crossed into Moussa Sissoko. Calmly bringing the ball under control and strolling past Ben White, Sissoko slide the ball under Ramsdale to create a grandstand finish.
With five minutes added time, Watford pressed for an equaliser but Arsenal stayed composed and closed the game out without further challenge.
Defeat leaves Watford well-established in the relegation places and Arsenal move up into fourth in the Premier League.
Takeaways from the match
An inventive Watford front-three
With Sarr and King missing through injury, Hodgson did not hold back in attack as Pedro, Hernandez and Dennis started their first game together for Watford.
With a combined age of 66, compared to Hodgson’s 74 years of experience, the attacking trio caused chaos in the Arenal defence inside the opening 30 minutes with 45 touches, one disallowed goal, one overhead spectacular and plenty of excitement.
However, as Arsenal scored their second and took more control of the midfield, Tierney and Soares grew into the game and blunted Watford’s attack.
It didn’t foster three-points nor more than two goals today but with Sarr facing another spell on the sidelines, Watford’s fight for survival may not be over just yet.
A goal to savour
Watching Watford this season has created more nightmares than memories but today will largely be remembered for all the right reasons thanks to Cucho Hernandez.
Having signed for Watford in 2017 from sister club, Granada, Hernandez has spent the majority of his time on loan, most recently at Mallorca and Getafe in Spain but having impressed in pre-season, Hernandez has been enjoying in his first full season with the Hornets.
Goals have been hard to come by in the 9 starting and 13 substitution appearances this season, with goals apiece against Aston Villa and Manchester City, but the goal today was worth the wait and worth watching on repeat for seasons to come.
Back to goal, surrounded by defenders and facing an in-form goalkeeper in Aaron Ramsdale, Hernandez looked like he was on the training ground having fun, rather than a sell-out Vicarage Road against Champions League hopefuls.
The challenge will be retaining that creativity in a side that continues to leak goals.
The stand-out performer for Watford in a 4-3-3 formation, his goal was a moment of brilliance that left all in attendance in awe and his assist for Watford’s second showed maturity beyond his years.
With injuries leaving a dearth of attacking threat in the Watford squad, Hernandez and Pedro will be vital to determining Watford’s Premier League fate and for the opening half an hour, Hernandez presented himself as a one-man answer to Watford’s attacking question.
However, with Arsenal busying themselves to contain Hernandez, opportunities fell to Dennis and without the confidence or audacity of the young Colombian, Watford’s goal threat mostly dissipated into obscurity.