Although they were the superior team, the goals with which they effectively secured the match - and with it, a three-point Premiership lead - came after two questionable decisions in their favour by the referee, Peter Jones.
The first, a free-kick a minute before half-time, occurred after Patrick Vieira appeared to run straight into Southampton's centre-back Claus Lundekvam on a forward charge. The Norwegian was booked, and from the subsequent kick Paul Merson evaded a challenge and drove home the opening goal.
It was a particularly harsh turn of events for the visitors, who had seen Lee Dixon head Jim Magilton's lob off the line two minutes earlier. But worse was to come for them in the 58th minute when Merson earned a dubious penalty as he fell under a challenge from the unfortunate Lundekvam.
Ian Wright, smothered for much of the game by Southampton's powerful Dutch defender Ulrich Van Gobbel, made the most of his unimpaired opportunity from the spot. He thus became the first British player to reach 20 goals this season and moved to within 14 of Cliff Bastin's all-time Arsenal scoring record of 178.
Southampton's manager, Graeme Souness, clearly felt that justice had not been done. "The referee didn't give the penalty, even though he was close to it," he said. "The linesman gave it. I didn't think it was one from where I was standing. And I think the free-kick for the first goal was cruel to us as well."
Despite a run of three consecutive Premiership defeats, during which they had conceded 11 goals, the visitors troubled the leaders in the first half with their swift-breaking style.
David Seaman's rib injury, and the broken leg suffered at the weekend by Southampton's Chris Woods, meant that both sides started with second- choice goalkeepers, and both were uncomfortably busy before Merson's breakthrough.
Once Arsenal had established a 2-0 lead, they ventured forward with uncharacteristic riskiness and allowed Eyal Berkovitch to pull a goal back eight minutes from time.
Paul Shaw, a 78th-minute substitute, steadied the Arsenal nerves three minutes from time as he drove home his first goal for the club. But Souness was not the only observer to believe that the scoreline flattered the home side. He believes, nevertheless, that Arsenal are capable of winning the title. "When you have won it once, you have a great belief," he said. "I think they have a real chance."
For his part, Arsenal's manager, Arsene Wenger, preferred to concentrate on the goalscoring prowess of Wright, whom he expects to pass Bastin's record before the season is out. "It was much easier to score goals in the 1930s," Wenger said. "But we have had to wait 50 years for a scorer of his quality. He is exceptional."
Arsenal (3-5-2): Lukic; Adams, Linighan, Bould; Dixon, Platt (Parlour, 80), Merson, Vieira, Winterburn; Hartson (Shaw, 78), Wright. Substitutes not used: Bartram, Morrow, Rose (gk).
Southampton (3-5-2): Beasant; Dryden, Van Gobbel, Lundekvam; Dodd (Monkou, 84), Oakley (Watson, 65), Magilton, Maddison (Slater, 75), Charlton; Berkovitch, Ostenstad. Substitutes not used: Moss (gk), Robinson.
Referee: P Jones (Loughborough).Reuse content