Some of Watford’s players sank to their knees; others made for the tunnel without a moment’s delay. The whistle had just blown on their five years in the Premier League and nobody could say that, when the occasion demanded them to hurl the kitchen sink at Arsenal, they went down without a fight.
This was a performance full of the crispness, urgency and aggression that have hallmarked their best work over the last half-decade but it came too late, as did the fightback that almost completely overhauled a three-goal deficit on the day. Had Emiliano Martínez not brilliantly saved Danny Welbeck’s backheel 16 minutes from time, shortly after his former teammate had tapped in to put Watford within two goals of safety, there is every chance they could have completed a comeback for the ages.
In the end they fell short and their caretaker manager, Hayden Mullins, might reflect that he would have never been handed this most thankless of tasks if his team had shown comparable application previously. Across the season they have not been good enough, but then nor has the organisation that employs them.
One poor campaign may not wreck an empire, but nor do the foundations put in place by the Pozzo family offer any kind of guarantee they will sail straight back up from the second tier. It is hard to escape the sense that Watford’s habit of flipping managers has run out of road. Their next permanent – perhaps in the loosest sense of – appointment will be the 12th in eight years and there is only so much fresh air a new broom can sweep in.
Players will depart, Ismaïla Sarr showing again here that it should be inconceivable he will be playing Championship football in September, and a steady hand should be a priority.
There was nothing stable about the boom-or-bust fare in an encounter Mikel Arteta described as “a bit of a basketball game”, although it certainly made for fine entertainment. Arteta said afterwards Watford’s forwards had been “cheating”, although he quickly clarified that as a football term for “gambling, staying up front”. They certainly needed to: any suggestion a battling point might eventually suffice was quickly scotched and they might wonder how things would have transpired if they had not been obliged to play catch-up.
Instead they conceded a penalty almost immediately. Craig Dawson had bundled carelessly into Alexandre Lacazette within 40 seconds but it took VAR almost three minutes to be confident of awarding the spot kick, which Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang dispatched unfussily. Watford gathered themselves to press relentlessly, with Sarr in electric form on the right, and came close through Roberto Pereyra and Troy Deeney. But then Aubameyang teed up Kieran Tierney for a deflected second and, at the first drinks break, the game had been so oddly skewed that Arteta was the manager tearing a strip off his players despite Arsenal’s advantage.
Aubameyang then controlled Tierney’s long throw and converted a masterful overhead kick that left him one goal short of the golden boot, an award he would have shared with Jamie Vardy if Ben Foster had not blocked one last chance near the end. Watford appeared done for but they persevered and, after David Luiz had produced another rash penalty-area challenge for the album on Welbeck, Deeney rammed in his own penalty before the break.
Deeney, walking wounded for most of the season, hauled himself around the pitch and was in gladiator mode throughout. He would probably have gobbled up the chance Adam Masina missed early in the second period and further openings were spurned, too. Welbeck was thwarted for a first time by the excellent Martínez, who Arteta confirmed will start Saturday’s FA Cup final, and then had the entire Watford contingent pitchside on their feet upon converting a fizzing cross from Sarr. But Watford’s prospects faded when his next effort was repelled and the soul-searching, from top to bottom, will need to be extensive.
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