Mikel Arteta has promised Arsenal will not let up against Watford on Sunday – a game that has major implications for the relegation battle if not for his own team’s prospects.
Arsenal cannot finish higher than eighth, guaranteeing their worst league season for 25 years, but their opponents must outdo Aston Villa’s performance at West Ham if they are to survive. With an FA Cup final against Chelsea approaching it could be a logical time to rest tired legs but Arteta feels a duty towards the integrity of what will be a nailbiting day at the bottom of the table.
“I want to play as strong a team as I can,” he said. “We have to respect that there are a few teams in the relegation battle and we are responsible for that as well.” Pushed further on his obligation to Watford’s competitors, he said: “It is our responsibility. A strong side doesn’t mean that players who have played less will not participate. For me, it’s more about how we approach the game and how we go into that game to win. That is not 50/50, there is no lack of intensity, anything like that. We cannot do that.”
The Watford captain, Troy Deeney, said in 2017 that Arsenal’s players lacked “cojones”, but Arteta does not expect them to take any pleasure in potentially sealing their fate. “Revenge, or when you are annoyed and want to put things right, is probably because you feel what has been said is right. If you don’t feel it’s right, or it doesn’t justify the way you approach the game or you fight, it doesn’t have to affect you.”
Shkodran Mustafi will be absent with a hamstring injury and Arteta suggested the in-form defender would probably not be back for the final.
Arteta described the out-of-favour pair Mesut Özil and Matteo Guendouzi as available, although it was unclear whether that denoted a shift in stance towards two players who may have made their final appearances for the club.
The drab defeat at Villa Park on Tuesday ended Arsenal’s hopes of achieving European qualification via the league and reiterated the scale of his task. Arteta refused to make excuses for their mid-table finish. “Hopefully next season it will be very different,” he said.
“We have a beautiful challenge – a very demanding challenge but a beautiful challenge – ahead of us. We have to get this right and bring this club back to where it belongs, which is with the top teams in the country and in Europe.”
Arteta, who refused to comment on Pep Guardiola’s statement this week that he respected Arsenal “not much off the pitch”, admitted even a Cup final win could not make this season a success. “After everything that happened, if we are able to win the final and qualify for Europe, we can say it’s OK. But it’s not the level for this football club.”