What a difference two months can make. In mid-December, Southampton stunned Arsenal at St Mary’s to win their first home game since April, ending a 22-match unbeaten run in the process. But here Arsenal won with ease, re-entering the top four at Manchester United’s expense while consigning Southampton to another week in the drop zone.
Arsenal have floundered ever since that 3-2 defeat — failing to win seven of their next 15 games — but, with a pivotal north London derby looming large on the horizon, they are regaining some form at an optimum moment in their season. Less than two weeks after a chastising defeat in Belarus left Unai Emery’s maiden campaign hanging precariously in the balance, they are back on track, still alive in Europe and in contention for that all-important top four finish.
After the trials and tribulations of recent weeks this was an agreeably business-like performance from Arsenal. They scored twice early on through the excellent Alexandre Lacazette and Henrikh Mkhitaryan, before easing off the handbrake in the second-half. Alex Iwobi in particular was superb. So often Arsenal’s scapegoat, he flourished on the left of Arsenal’s 4-2-3-1, playing a crucial role in both of the goals.
The only real sour moment of Arsenal’s afternoon came when he limped off late into the second-half. “I hope it is only a knock and not a more important injury,” Emery said after the match. “I very much hope that he can play on Wednesday [against Bournemouth].”
How Ralph Hasenhüttl must wish a middling injury to a workmanlike midfielder was the extent of his problems. He has now been in charge of more than half of Southampton’s Premier League matches this season, but still his side lack a distinguishable identity. They initially lined up in an ill-fitting 5-3-2, before a hasty half-time switch saw two strikers chucked on in desperation.
Arsenal simply slackened the pace and let them pad forward harmlessly. Southampton simply never looked like scoring.
“We made a good beginning but the second mistake was a really horrible mistake in an area where you do not have to take any risks,” Hasenhüttl said. “Especially against a team like Arsenal. They really killed us in that moment and so we had to change things at half-time. They were not dominating but we could not score.”
They were toothless going forward but the bulk of their problems exist at the back. Both of Arsenal’s goals were soft. The first came in peculiar circumstances, missed by the vast majority of Arsenal’s players and supporters, who had turned in Graham Scott’s direction to plead for a penalty. They looked to have a case after Jack Stephens sent Lucas Torreira sprawling, only for Mkhitaryan to take advantage of the chaos by pouncing upon the ball and rifling a shot on goal from the edge of the box.
He fluffed his lines. But his woefully sliced effort fell wonderfully for Lacazette — played onside by the bungling Jan Bednarek — who flicked the ball artfully past Angus Gunn. Naturally, the Frenchman sprinted half the length of the field to celebrate with his dewy-eyed BFF, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.
If their first goal was fortuitous, their second was practically paid for, gift wrapped and hand delivered by Southampton’s brittle backline, made all the more agonising by Matt Targett’s well-saved shot just moments before.
First Stephens dawdled for too long on the ball, inviting pressure from Lacazette. His backpass wasn’t much better, forcing Gunn to scamper across his goal. To complete the comedy routine Gunn then slipped, screwing his clearance directly to the left boot of the impressive Iwobi. Bursting into space, he quickly sorted out his feet to square across goal, the ball taking the slightest of deflections off Bednarek to fall flush for Mkhitaryan. This time, his shot was on target.
Only too aware that his side were poised to spend another week in the relegation zone, Hasenhüttl gambled. Off came the toiling Stephens and underwhelming Stuart Armstrong, on came forwards Charlie Austin and Michael Obafemi. But Arsenal soaked up everything Southampton had to throw at them, with only Jack Ward-Prowse coming close to inspiring a comeback. Twice he took matters into his own hands by unleashing stinging drives from distance — the second forcing Bernd Leno into an impressive diving save.
There was to be one final sting in the tail for Southampton. 18-year-old forward Obafemi, who was making his first appearance in two months following a hamstring injury, lasted only 20 minutes before collapsing to the turf and disappearing down the tunnel with a recurrence of the same complaint. “It is a hamstring problem again,” Hasenhüttl later confirmed. “He knows now that it is a problem with his body and we must change his treatment for the future. It is very disappointing.”
With Danny Ings also out injured, Southampton could yet come to regret their decision not to sign an additional striker last month.
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