He has been the man of the season at the Emirates and when Arsène Wenger needed a hero it was Alexis Sanchez who obliged to keep Arsenal pointed in the right direction.
Fraser Forster had performed like the Thames Barrier in a storm, a string of incredible interventions appearing to keep Southampton afloat. There was barely a minute remaining when the ball arrived at the feet of Sanchez. And for once Forster was in no position to act.
What the Chilean’s 14th goal of the season lacked in beauty was balanced by its significance. There was more at stake than just points for Wenger. His reputation and his future are on the line, no matter how much the Frenchman protests to the contrary. Anything less than a win last night was ammunition for those who would have him out.
Wenger insists his team are a gathering force about to launch the next great era at the Emirates. It has been some time since Wenger’s alchemy was something to trust. His detractors are at the gates. Banners are the preferred conduits for now, but written protests will morph quickly enough into more substantial outrage should the promises prove baseless.
Southampton are the authors of arguably the most refreshing story the Premier League has known, certainly in the era of the oligarch and the petro dollar. The victory claimed by Manchester City at St Mary’s last weekend was greeted as a coup. That is testament enough to the quality of the Southampton proposition, one that arrived at the Emirates as an industry benchmark.
Arsenal 1 Southampton 0 player ratings
Arsenal 1 Southampton 0 player ratings
1/1 Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain – 6
Lively start to the game saw him floating behind Welbeck before taking station on the left. Had a good effort saved by Forster in the first-half, and faded after the break perhaps feeling the effects of the knee injury that had him doubtful for the game. Replaced by Olivier Giroud with 25 minutes left.
That used to be Arsenal’s slot. The inversion of roles provided much of the dramatic tension at the start of a mad month of Premiership over-indulgence. Seven matches, bookended by this fixture, to bring in the New Year is an outlandish demand on the modern athlete and one that will substantiate or otherwise the claims of both clubs.
If Arsenal are going to make good on Wenger’s pledges then they had to start here. If Southampton are to do as Ronald Koemen suggests and sustain a prolonged top-four challenge then they could not afford another reverse against pedigree opposition.
Arsenal were notionally strengthened by the return of Laurent Koscielny at centre-back, allowing Nacho Monreal to revert to his favoured left-back post. Conversely, Southampton were forced to accommodate the loss of injured playmaker Morgan Schneiderlin. His replacement, Jack Cork, lasted only half an hour before an ankle injury forced his exit.
The first chance of the game fell to Danny Welbeck, set free by a lovely Santi Cazorla pass. Welbeck is quick but has yet to persuade his critics that he has a clinical dimension. This was one for the detractors, his left-foot shot failing to work Fraser Forster in goal. “You should have done better,” screamed a member of the anti tendency.
Southampton had to wait until the 15th minute to fashion an opening, and what an opportunity it was. Dusan Tadic escaped Luke Chambers down the left. His cleared cross was worked to Graziano Pelle, who fashioned a one-two in the box with Steven Davis. The Arsenal defence were spectators as Pelle raced on to the return. It was the kind of chance he was gobbling in the early weeks of the season. Here he blazed high over the bar, the act of a striker more than one character removed from Pele.
The match unfolded at a frantic pace. Fast feet and full on commitment are a staple of the English game. Neither team seemed able or willing to put a foot on the ball. As the great West Indies fast bowler Michael Holding used to say, it is not always pace that gets a batsman out, but often a change of pace.
At least Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain made Forster dirty his knees with a smart stop from close range. The crowd urged Arsenal forward. Welbeck responded with a back-heel, the sort of cheeky improvisation that seems to work for England. Not here. Again he missed the target.
He atoned with a header on the stroke of half-time but Forster was equal to it, tipping the ball over the bar.
Wenger switched Welbeck and Sanchez at the start of the second half hoping the Chilean’s ability to beat a man might bear fruit centrally and encouraged Oxlade-Chamberlain to roam.
Southampton simply stuck to their task and were always alert to the counter, a sweeping move involving Victor Wanyama and Shane Long keeping Arsenal on their toes early on
As the hour approached the stalemate asked something of both managers: to stick or twist. Ronald Koeman went first, replacing the fading Tadic with Sadio Mane. The presence of Olivier Giroud sprinting up and down the touchline suggested a response from Wenger was imminent.
Oxlade-Chamberlain, who had been effective only in bursts, was the man to make way. Giroud went straight up the middle, leaving Welbeck on the left side.
Giroud almost scored immediately, forcing a brilliant block from Forster with a hammer-like volley. Minutes later it was Welbeck stretching the Southampton keeper after Giroud had played him in with a cute flick.
Each missed opportunity etched a line of worry across the forehead of Wenger. Each repelled attack demonstrated the resilience of Southampton, marshalled brilliantly all night by Victor Wanyama.
Welbeck made way with 10 minutes remaining. Lukas Podolski came on but it was Sanchez who made the difference, poaching in front of goal with a minute of normal time remaining.Reuse content