Life feels sweet for Arsenal and they showed it in overcoming a spirited Watford. Their three goals were all dazzlingly taken and conceived – even if Cucho Hernández’s spectacular early equaliser was the game’s standout moment – and moved them into the top four with games in hand over most of those around them.
Martin Ødegaard, Bukayo Saka and Gabriel Martinelli would grace the Champions League; they all scored to make the prospect ever likelier and, while Moussa Sissoko introduced a fresh element of doubt by squeezing in a late effort for Watford, Roy Hodgson watched a chance to make up ground on the rest of the relegation pack slip away.
Ødegaard’s fifth-minute opener was the fruit of a stunning escalation in speed and control. The route to goal looked complicated when Saka picked up Ben White’s pass near the right touchline, but a sharp exchange of passes with the Norwegian sent him into space. As Saka assessed his options, Ødegaard had kept running into the box; he took the resulting cutback and, keeping his cool under pressure from Sissoko, found the bottom corner with precision.
By that point Watford could already reflect that, had Emmanuel Dennis held his run onto João Pedro’s through ball a fraction longer, they would have been ahead after 16 seconds. That became a distant memory when Hernández scored as perfectly executed an overhead kick as one might ever see.
Arsenal had looked ready to turn the screw but, after Sissoko did well to hold onto possession, Kiko Femenía was sent to the byline. His chipped cross was met near the penalty spot by Hernández, who provided a textbook demonstration of contortion power with an acrobatic finish that gave Aaron Ramsdale no prospect of intervening.
Only 11 minutes had been played and, for a while, there was a sense that the obvious script had been ripped up. Hernández was playing instead of the injured Ismaïla Sarr but had come up with a piece of penetration as thrilling as anything his teammate might have mustered. Thomas Partey tried to produce his own piece of magic, bending a foot wide after neat footwork created the chance, but the game’s flow now felt perfectly equal. Dennis cut inside from the right for Watford and flashed in a low shot that Ramsdale fumbled; Arsenal survived but were coming under regular examination now.
These days, though, they have individuals who can move the dial in an instant. Saka does that more than anyone and, just when Arsenal’s performance was drifting, he scored a goal that highlighted all elements of his contribution. Tom Cleverley hung onto the ball for too long 10 yards outside Watford’s penalty area and Saka, who had pressed ferociously from the start, was quick to steal possession. He played it into Alexandre Lacazette instantly, continuing his run and receiving a backheeled return. A first-time finish sent Ben Foster the wrong way and, once again, advertised one of the most scintillating talents in the Premier League.
It felt harsh on Watford, but that is what top-four contenders do. While the rest of the first half was contested with little threat of another Arsenal goal bar a blocked Martinelli effort, the wind had been removed from the hosts’ sails well before the interval arrived.
A piece of over-elaboration outside his area from Ramsdale moments after the restart should have given Sissoko the chance to shoot into an open goal, albeit from range and at an angle, but he could not arrange his feet. Watford would regret his indecision; they were shortly picked apart by a devastating attacking combination for the third time.
Mikel Arteta could claim something akin to a pre-assist after an Imran Louza pass drifted out of play and he ran 10 yards down the touchline to press the ball into Saka’s hands. The unspoken message was to take a quick throw-in and Saka obliged, finding Cédric Soares on the overlap. Soares found Ødegaard, who flicked a cute pass into Lacazette; from there the captain laid back to Ødegaard for Martinelli to curl past Foster from 18 yards. The finish was similar to Saka’s and Arsenal, with goals from all of their clear chances, had been clinical.
Cleverley had a glimpse of goal after more sloppy play from Ramsdale but the keeper redeemed himself. Lacazette and White screwed efforts off target at the other end but the next moment of note, going into the final 25 minutes, was the home support’s reaction when Hodgson replaced Louza with Edo Kayembe. The decision was met with boos and the chanting of Louza’s name; the midfielder had played well, save for that earlier mishap, but it did not feel an especially egregious point of contention.
Dennis then completely miscued Femenía’s cross to the far post but, after the substitute Eddie Nketiah struck the upright for Arsenal, Sissoko made the final few minutes interesting. Arsenal held on and pressed home their claim.