Modern-day footballers tend to behave themselves on New Year’s Eve so Arsenal did not even have the excuse of a hangover for a disjointed, insipid display at St Mary’s which left them four points adrift of the Champions League places and raised further doubts about their chances of winning a trophy any time soon.
The Gunners scored seven goals against Newcastle on Saturday but could manage only one shot on target here, and that not until the 78th minute. Fortunately for them Guly Do Prado had already provided an own goal to cancel out Gaston Ramirez’s 34th-minute opener and at least secure them a draw.
The point was enough to lift Saints out of the bottom three but those home supporters who roared with delight at the final whistle may reflect in time that this was two points dropped rather than one gained, so abysmal were Arsenal. Since Southampton had played four games over Christmas to Arsenal’s three, fatigue could not be the reason. Maybe complacency was after the 7-3 defeat of Newcastle and the fact that Arsenal had thrashed Saints 6-1 at the Emirates in September.
There were five survivors from the Southampton team that started that match. Only one, Jose Fonte, was a defender, though his partner at centre-half Maya Yoshida made his English debut as a shell-shocked substitute in that match. Southampton have learnt a lot about life in the top flight since that day and with one exception looked far more assured. The odd man out was Artur Boruc, surprisingly recalled by Nigel Adkins for his first match since becoming embroiled in an altercation with Saints fans on his home debut in October. The goalkeeper had missed 11 matches and he looked extremely rusty, spilling Arsenal’s first two crosses. There were ironic cheers when the Pole caught the next one. “Artur has been very impressive in training,” said Adkins. “Experienced goalkeepers respond to mistakes and he didn’t let that affect him.”
The first half-hour passed with little incident, but then Saints pressed Lukas Podolski and the German attempted a rash pass back towards Laurent Koscielny. Morgan Schneiderlin stole the ball and, though Bacary Sagna cut out his intended pass to Rickie Lambert, the defender could clear only as far as Jason Puncheon, who cleverly laid the ball back to Ramirez. The Uruguayan, technically the equal of anyone on the pitch, calmly swept it through a crowd past Wojciech Szczesny.
The lead lasted just seven minutes. Mikel Arteta lured Puncheon into conceding a free-kick. Walcott whipped it in and Guly diverted the ball past Boruc as he attempted to clear. It was Southampton’s third own goal for Arsenal this season after scoring two at the Emirates. This was Walcott’s first intervention of note. The match had been billed as the first return of him and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain to the club that nurtured them. When Gareth Bale, another former Saint, came back with Spurs in October he scored in their victory and Saints fans naturally feared a repeat. But though there were signs of Walcott’s recent tutelage by Thierry Henry in the way he lurked behind the back four, several yards offside, as Henry used to, he was given no opportunities to run at or beyond the defence. After an hour he was switched to the wing, Podolski hauled off and Olivier Giroud introduced.
By then Saints had gone close to regaining the lead. After Guly had drawn an athletic save from Szczesny the resultant corner rebounded goalwards off Sagna’s knee only to be gathered, just, by Szczesny. Though Walcott, receiving the ball somewhat fortuitously, tested Boruc’s handling with a 20-yard shot midway through the half Arsenal lacked threat. Their passing was sloppy and had no zip.
While Adkins brought on Jay Rodriguez and James Ward-Prowse, Wenger added Gervinho and Aaron Ramsey to the mix. Gervinho scored twice against Southampton in the 6-1 win but that was when his confidence was high and it looked as if he was finally blossoming. He is a shadow of that player now and provoked jeers as he lost possession and was then left on his backside as he tried to recover it.
Szczesny made a couple of regulation saves as Southampton strove to capitalise on Arsenal’s wan performance. Puncheon tricked his way past a pair of defenders but shot straight at the keeper. In the 90th minute Arsenal belatedly released Gibbs on the overlap, but Yoshida cleared his cross and Arsenal’s hopes of a winning start to the year disappeared.
No loan deal for Henry, says Wenger
Arsenal's record goalscorer, Thierry Henry, will not be returning to the club on loan this month, Arsène Wenger confirmed yesterday.
The 35-year-old, who scored 228 goals in 337 games for the Gunners and now plies his trade with New York Red Bulls in the US, returned to the Emirates on a short-term loan this time last year and had been lined up for a similar move this January.
"I think he goes away somewhere," Wenger said. "He is not ready, he has just come back from holiday anyway. At the moment we are not on that case."
Asked for clarification, he said: "No [it's not happening]." However, Wenger said he would be "active" in the transfer market. "We want to strengthen the squad if we find the right players."
As for tonight's draw, Wenger added: "Our game lacked purpose, penetration, speed; all the qualities we have usually.
"It is two points lost but we did not deserve more when you look at our performance. We did not create a lot. We have big games coming up and need to analyse why."
Reflecting on the contrast between this game and the reverse fixture in September, when Arsenal won 6-1, the Southampton manager, Nigel Adkins, said: "We got a hiding there. This shows how far we have come. There is a growing maturity about the players. Tactically we were bang on today."