Only a dyed-in-the-acrylic Arsenal anorak would normally take more than a passing interest in a reserve fixture against Watford on Barnet's unlovely slope. Coming hard on the heels of another Highbury failure, and the dearth of leadership it exposed in Arsène Wenger's side, the appearance of Tony Adams should ensure that tonight is an exception.
Already without their long-injured captain, Arsenal also lost Adams' stand-in, Patrick Vieira, for two-thirds of this match. By the end, the team was substantially different from the one that started – itself a long way from Wenger's "best" XI – and bereft of inspiration. Southampton, to whose work-rate Gordon Strachan has allied a tactical rigour, stole a draw when the substitute Jo Tessem's late header negated Sylvain Wiltord's simple but cleverly worked opener.
Adams himself made a prescient point in Saturday's programme, arguing that a club needed three experienced centre-backs (as well as four strikers) to win the championship. "In 1991 we had myself, Dave O'Leary and Steve Bould," he recalled. "In '98 it was me, Bouldy and Martin Keown, and now we have me, Martin and Sol Campbell, not forgetting the talented young Matthew Upson." Unhappily, Keown sustained a broken leg while the column was at the printers, while Upson endured an error-strewn outing that can have done nothing for his confidence.
If you follow Adams' logic, Arsenal are down to a third of their central-defensive strength, making his comeback a matter of urgency. Wenger admitted he might play at Everton next Sunday, although he played down the significance of his possible return. "Tony hasn't played for 15 weeks, yet we're still up there," he said. "He could have given us the sharpness and experience we needed to keep a clean sheet. But I still think we'd have a good chance [of winning the title] without him."
He could be right, and Adams' readiness would not, of course, have been an issue had Arsenal drawn rather than won at Blackburn in midweek and then beaten Southampton. The fact is they did not, leaving them with a paltry 19 points at home compared with 29 away. That record, plus a burgeoning catalogue of injuries and suspensions, suggests that having seven of the last 12 games on their own pitch will not necessarily be an advantage, even if all are against clubs in mid-table or lower.
Wenger also took a sideswipe at Manchester United, using the same kind of psychological warfare Sir Alex Ferguson is wont to deploy. "They are winning easily at home to teams down at the bottom," he said. "But they are the side who have struggled more to win games against the big teams. I don't think you can win the League if you do that." The champions' record against their rivals is indeed poor. But they have generated awesome momentum while recapturing top place, and it hardly follows that they will lose their tussles with Arsenal, Leeds and the rest.
Given that Southampton have fared creditably against all the main contenders over the past 10 games (except Newcastle, and they meet them next week), Strachan seemed well-placed to assess the title run-in, only to invoke the cop-out clause of: "I'm only interested in my team".
Four more wins would surely guarantee St Mary's stays a Premiership venue. On recent evidence, in which the manager included a 6-1 defeat at Old Trafford because "believe it or not, we were far better than today", Southampton will secure them without the usual brinkmanship.
Strachan's trademark touchline antics had left him "knackered", but he added: "I'm not swearing or doing anyone harm, just trying to get the players' attention. It's easy for top managers to sit there looking cool, because they've got world-class players. I have a system that has to be adhered to. If anyone loses his focus, we're in trouble."
It did not blur nearly enough for Arsenal to run up the handsome victory that their early fluidity threatened. One of the few lapses in Southampton's discipline came when Matthew Le Tissier was cautioned for disputing a decision as he did his substitute's stretches, proving that his bookings, like his goals, tend to be memorable.
Paul Williams, who followed Strachan from Coventry, was everything poor Upson was not, while Wayne Bridge looked sufficiently poised at left-back – even when the lavishly gifted Robert Pires switched to his flank – to merit an England call against the Netherlands now that Ashley Cole is injured.
Cole will be absent for three weeks after suffering knee-ligament damage. However, Vieira's aggravated hamstring and Adams' match-fitness are likely to concern Wenger more as the Champions' League and FA Cup compound the pressure on his squad.
Goals: Wiltord (40) 1-0; Tessem (80) 1-1.
Arsenal (4-4-2): Wright 6; Luzhny 4, Campbell 6, Upson 3, Cole 6 (Grimandi 5, 52); Bergkamp 6 (Edu 4, 71), Parlour 7, Vieira 5 (Van Bronckhorst 5, 27), Pires 7; Wiltord 6, Henry 6. Substitutes not used: Dixon, Stack (gk).
Southampton (4-4-2): Jones 6; Dodd 5, Lundekvam 6, Williams 7, Bridge 6; Telfer 6, Svensson 6, Oakley 6 (Fernandes, 76), Marsden 6; Pahars 4, Davies 4 (Tessem 5, 58). Substitutes not used: Le Tissier, Monk, Moss (gk).
Referee: C Wilkes (Gloucester) 6.
Bookings: Arsenal Wiltord, Henry. Southampton Le Tissier, Davies, Dodd.
Man of the match: Williams.