“Believe” is a small word with huge ramifications. It is used urgently, if advisedly, by Mauricio Pochettino when he refers to the potential of his emergent Southampton side. But football has a habit of beggaring belief.
We live in an age of obsessive attention to detail, where strategies and careers are shaped by models of statistical probability, informed by mathematical algorithms, tested to destruction by PhD graduates from Oxbridge. Yet the old game is nothing without its human dimension.
Nothing can legislate for the sort of brain fade experienced by Artur Boruc halfway through the first half. He crammed three Cruyff turns and two backheels into a mistake of monumental proportions. The rest, they say, is history, and blooper heaven.
It was classic confirmation of the ruinous eccentricity that defines his trade, and made a mockery of Southampton’s status as one of the top flight’s most stringent defences. The four points the Polish goalkeeper has cost them in two games would radically redefine the table.
A Europa League place remains the most logical ambition for Southampton, whose progress denies us the luxury of condescension. They can no longer be judged lazily as plucky underdogs, a small club punching above their weight.
They must be true to their principles under the unprecedented pressure of expectation. There was much to admire in this defeat, although their lack of creativity resulted in Arsenal’s relative comfort.
They shaded possession, having 50.8 per cent of the ball, and completed only two passes fewer than Arsenal, 385. They fashioned 10 shots on goal to the League leaders’ eight. Three were made by Adam Lallana, whose substitution, nine minutes into the second half, was a cautious but understandable response to his exertions on England’s behalf.
Statistics suggest Southampton are the fittest, most disciplined team in the Premier League. No other set of players run for longer at the official measurement of high intensity, 5.5 metres per second. They press high, and rest only when they are on the ball.
No team win possession back with greater alacrity and effectiveness in the last third of the pitch. They narrowly failed this, a pivotal test of their maturity and persistence, but were able to cite extenuating circumstances.
They could have done without an immediate echo of last season’s 6-1 drubbing at the Emirates. The late withdrawal of Dejan Lovren with flu symptoms led to a recall for Jos Hooiveld, who scored an own goal in that rout.
Lovren’s composure and game intelligence was much missed in the centre of the Southampton defence. It was arguably no coincidence that Jose Fonte, normally such a reliable partner, should be lured into the most blatant of shirt pulls, which resulted in Arsenal’s late penalty.
The improvement under Pochettino is manifest. They kept their shape well in adversity and provided more than adequate evidence of the ability of the Argentinian coach to oversee the development of a new generation of England internationals.
Luke Shaw, who picked up an early injury and failed to emerge for the second half, was denied the opportunity to reinforce his claims as a credible alternative to the unreliable Ashley Cole.
His misfortune, however, allowed two other stellar prospects, James Ward-Prowse and Nathaniel Clyne, to illustrate the adaptability which defines the modern player.
Ward-Prowse, though initially deployed wide on the right of an attacking trio behind Rickie Lambert, may ultimately develop into the far-sighted holding midfielder Roy Hodgson’s England so conspicuously lack.
He tackles crisply and effectively, and distributes the ball quickly and accurately. His reversion to right-back, following the loss of Shaw, meant Clyne switched to left-back, where he neutralised the pace of a returning Theo Walcott.
Saints have still conceded only seven goals in 12 games and though protective of Boruc, Pochettino doubtlessly paused to consider what might have been. This was a survivable setback.
More than 20 youth-team players graduated to Pochettino’s first team at Espanyol through force of economic circumstance and professional principle, and a similar pattern is already emerging at Southampton.
Three more teenaged academy graduates, Calum Chambers, Harrison Reed and Sam Gallagher, enhanced their education on the bench yesterday. Believe...