Manager Roy Hodgson insisted he “couldn’t have asked for more” from his team after a spirited Watford performance ultimately ended in a 3-2 defeat to Arsenal at Vicarage Road.
Top scorer Emmanuel Dennis thought he had given the Hornets the lead against the high-flying Gunners within the first 20 seconds, only for his strike to be ruled out for offside, and it was indeed the visitors who opened the scoring just four minutes later through Martin Ødegaard.
An acrobatic Cucho Hernández super-strike levelled terms six minutes later, but impressive England youngster Bukayo Saka restored Arsenal’s lead on the half-hour mark.
Gabriel Martinelli scored a third for the north Londoners somewhat against the run of play soon after half-time, and though Moussa Sissoko’s late strike couldn’t prevent an eighth successive Golden Boys home defeat, Hodgson was encouraged by his team’s resolve throughout the 90 minutes.
“On the whole I thought we did about as well as I could have hoped against a very good team in top form,” said Hodgson, 74. “We worked very hard, and I’ve got no criticism of my players after that.
“We had what would have been a wonderful start with that early goal that was chalked off. I thought we did well to get back into it after they went ahead, and while the players’ efforts to get an equaliser at 2-1 led to their third, we kept going and made it an exciting finish.
“I didn’t think we made them work hard enough for their goals and we paid the price for our mistakes, but we were good value for our goals. We had the ball in their penalty area on a lot of occasions, and Arsenal had to defend quite desperately which is a sign that we retained a positive approach throughout.”
Hernández came into Hodgson’s XI as one of three changes from the previous weekend’s 0-0 draw at Manchester United, alongside Kiko Femenía and João Pedro, and the Colombian made a telling impact with his third goal of the season.
While the likes of Ismaïla Sarr and Joshua King were absent through injury, Hodgson emphasised his faith in the whole squad’s attacking ability and is confident the goals will continue to flow in the coming weeks.
He said: “I don’t think we would have necessarily done any better than we did today [with Sarr and King in the team]. The reason we didn’t take anything from the game was more to do with mistakes we made, rather than us missing something from individual players.
“João Pedro and Cucho played a full part in our performance today, which was really pleasing. João Pedro particularly came to life in the second half as our most dominant forward, after Cucho had made a great impact with his goal.”
After a point at Old Trafford and a positive display back on home turf, Watford next face a trip to Wolverhampton Wanderers on Thursday night (March 10, 7.30pm KO) before going to Southampton three days later (Sunday March 13, 2pm KO).
And while his team sit 19th in the top-flight with 11 games to go, ex-England boss Hodgson remains hopeful that the Hornets have the quality to make a late charge up the rankings and avoid the drop.
He added: “We've got some important games coming up and we should take heart from such competitive performances and resilience away to Manchester United and at home to a very good Arsenal team. There's a reason why these teams are where they are in the table.
“We're going to have to do at least what we did today and more to give ourselves a good chance of winning more points through good performances.
“But we’ve got games against teams much closer to us in the table than Manchester United and Arsenal coming up, and I would like to think that if we can marry up some of the good things we’ve been doing then we have a good chance.”