Arsenal give away their title advantage – now they must go to Man City and win

Arsenal 3-3 Southampton: A thriller at the Emirates ended all square and hands the impetus to the Gunners’ title rivals ahead of their decisive meeting next week

Miguel Delaney
Emirates Stadium
Saturday 22 April 2023 10:13 BST
Bukayo Saka reacts after Arsenal’s 3-3 draw with Southampton
Bukayo Saka reacts after Arsenal’s 3-3 draw with Southampton (PA)

A 3-3 out of nothing, and a point that might yet be worth something. It just didn’t mean everything in the way it could and should have, and certainly didn’t mean three points. Arsenal have instead given away every advantage to Manchester City, from the initiative and impetus. They still go there on Wednesday with some conviction, though, after a desperately late 3-3 comeback against Southampton that could have been so much worse.

The grand question is how they can go and beat the best team in Europe after failing to win their last three against sides at all levels of the Premier League, including the very bottom. That is what is so pained amid the crowd’s pride at the comeback from 2-0 and then 3-1. The sudden silence after so much late celebration said it all. This result would be damaging enough on its own but comes on the back of three without a win that could see them decisively lose this league and the title itself.

You could sense it in the stadium. The players collapsed to the grass at the end.

There was defiance at what had happened but a knowledge of the significance. It’s difficult not to think that got to the team throughout the game, as they displayed their inexperience in a run-in.

The aftermath was so flat, a far remove from the chaos everyone had just experienced.

Maybe that is part of the issue. Even that manic energy from previous games caught up with Arsenal. They couldn’t keep expending that emotional energy – and certainly couldn’t keep being involved in wild 2-0 swings. This was another.

This one finally went their way, if not all the way, but they have to hope it marks a swing in direction; in conviction – especially given what’s next.

It’s not over, but Arsenal do need to overcome some huge blocks. That is the champions, and an anxiety that has inevitably afflicted them at this key stage of the season.

It didn’t go so far as killing them yet. But it is bringing them to the brink.

So much came from a start that was shocking and yet in its own way felt inevitable.

Arsenal made a shocking start before hitting back to snatch a point against Southampton
Arsenal made a shocking start before hitting back to snatch a point against Southampton (PA)

There were so many elements of the opening 15 minutes that could almost represent the most extreme illustration of a meltdown, even going to the manner of it and the nature of the little twists – not to mention some of the key characters.

Ramsdale has been one of the best-performing figures in Arsenal’s season and his saves against Liverpool could yet prove crucial, but he here immediately picked up from a panicking and flapping performance at West Ham United. That was by failing to pick out an Arsenal shirt. With the first action of the game, Ramsdale somehow just gave the ball to the excellent Carlos Alcaraz. He took it with open arms, which was a little like the goalkeeper for the shot. Alcaraz turned inside and fired through Ramsdale’s hands.

If that wasn’t so bad in the grand scheme of things, the more important element was that Arsenal immediately had a frenetic match when the club could do with a bit of serenity. Southampton evidently sensed. They were willing to seize an opportunity. That could be seen with the way Theo Walcott, of all players, was just pleading to be given the ball in behind Gabriel when another break went Southampton’s way.

Alcaraz obliged and the former Arsenal forward rolled in the easiest of finishes.

As Southampton celebrated, Zinchenko called the entire team together for a huddle. It wasn’t something you always see, but then you don’t usually see the league leaders 2-0 to the bottom team after just 15 minutes of a crucial run-in game.

This dictated everything about the performance. Arsenal spent the next 80 minutes playing as if it was the last five. There was that conspicuous combination of hesitation but then anxious rushing to almost everything they did. The process wasn’t being trusted. It was all too manic.

Saka was one of the few playing through it and it was his run through the Southampton flank that set up Gabriel Martinelli to make it 2-1. It was one of those instinctive finishes borne of pure urgency.

That didn’t really calm Arsenal, mind. It did unsettle Southampton, though. They were soon playing like it was the last five minutes, too, time-wasting at every opportunity and drawing more and more players back.

That was just as well for one key moment, as Alcaraz again headed a Ben White flick-on out from under the bar.

How Arsenal could have done with a similar attitude on 67 minutes. It was all the worse as Arteta’s side had spent so long toiling to get at Southampton, without actually creating that much, only for Ruben Selles’s attack to get at Arsenal so easily. The third goal was just as farcically easy as the previous two. Ramsdale’s backline was again beaten for conviction, only for the finishing touch to require no one to be beaten at all. Armel Bella-Kotchap flicked the ball on and there was Duje Caleta-Car just plundering a header.

This was it. Arsenal now had 20 minutes to score at least twice, but really needed three.

Gabriel Jesus immediately missed a fine chance.

This was an encapsulation of why they may not win the title. There are of course bigger discussions to be had about the wider context of the Premier League, but Arsenal just looked like they didn’t have the experience together as a team to manage the real pressure.

So many of their senior players stopped performing to the level we’ve known all season. Thomas Partey couldn’t keep the ball. Jesus couldn’t direct it. Martin Odegaard wasn’t controlling the ball properly – until, finally, he diverted a shot into the corner near the end.

That was the spark. The question is whether it is that final fire of the season. Arsenal couldn’t quite bring the explosion of joy the stadium demanded, needed.

With Southampton suddenly panicking in a way they hadn’t done all game, the ball broke for Saka to turn it in.

It was 3-3 but still wasn’t three points. Leandro Trossard hit the bar.

Arsenal couldn’t raise the bar further. They’d gone as far as they could. It remains to be seen whether that is it for their challenge itself.

It all goes to Wednesday. It’s a game unlike too many in modern English football history. If Arsenal win it from here, they will be champions unlike too many in modern English football history.

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