Another Premier League match this campaign, another first half where Arsenal enter halftime without a lead. This time, Arsenal were losing, as they were against Tottenham, Wolves, Liverpool, Crystal Palace and Manchester City. In four of those five games, Arsenal have recovered to get 6 points; but against Southampton, Arsenal gave themselves too much to do, and Charlie Austin, an Arsenal-killer, scored the winner.
Unai Emery was not circumspect in detailing how Arsenal fell short: “In the 90 minutes we had different issues in the first and the second half. In the second half we were better with control in the game and creating more chances than them, controlling the transitions.” Emery fixed these issues, to an extent in the second half, but in the first half, Arsenal’s midfield could not control the game, as Southampton took 9 of their 12 shots in the first half.
Defensive weaknesses were perhaps to be expected. How Emery reacted to his makeshift team, though, saw him put Granit Xhaka in a back three, using Matteo Guendouzi and Lucas Torreira in midfield. The re-shuffle saw Torreira have the least amount of influence on a game in some time, as Guendouzi floated in and out of the match. Arsenal’s inability to control midfield had two ramifications: firstly, Torreira was often bypassed as Southampton played around Arsenal’s two midfielders before getting the ball wide for crosses, and Torreira made 1 interception and 0 tackles in the first half. Secondly, Arsenal were unable to build play through the middle. Emery often has Arsenal utilize the wide areas, but with a 3421 system without a player to link the midfield and attack, Arsenal were reliant on Alex Iwobi and Henrikh Mkhitaryan.
Southampton, though, countered Arsenal’s system by utilizing a 343, which enabled their three centre backs to man-mark Arsenal’s attackers, and the wing-backs to pin back Arsenal’s own wing backs. Jan Bednarek, Southampton’s right-centre back, stuck tightly to Alex Iwobi, and one of the few times Iwobi got freedom he played in Nacho Monreal to create Arsenal’s first goal.
Mkhitaryan, up against a less mobile centre back, was able to come deeper and have slightly more of an effect on the game, but without a link player and forced to create from deep, Arsenal had very little in the first half; long-balls were the other way of getting Aubameyang chances, and while he should’ve scored from Guendouzi’s early pass, Arsenal’s direct game was unsuccessful.
With Granit Xhaka playing as a centre back, and being concerned with positioning—fairly, as it was an unfamiliar role—Arsenal weren’t able to utilize Xhaka’s passing from deep, as well as his switches from play. Furthermore, Southampton, through getting tight on Iwobi, stopped Arsenal from building down the left as much as they prefer, forcing play to the right hand side, where Stephan Lichtsteiner, in particular, had a poor game playing from the back.
Emery brought Lacazette on for the injured Héctor Bellerín at half time as Arsenal switched to a 442/4222 system, and gained control. With two strikers, Southampton couldn’t man-mark Iwobi and Mkhitaryan, who drifted inside, giving Arsenal spare men in the midfield, allowing control. With the wing-backs no longer having their defensive duties protected by centre-backs, Arsenal’s full backs were allowed to get forward, though not to great effect, as Lichtsteiner, now deputizing for Bellerin, was not effective. Arsenal, though, had given themselves too much to do, and could not turn the game around.
While Emery was given a bad hand, the inability to set Arsenal up to dictate the match follows a pattern that has followed Arsenal throughout their unbeaten run, where matches against the Premier League’s non-top 6 sides have not been wholly convincing (Fulham, Leicester and Bournemouth being the good performances of these matches). If Emery is to get Arsenal into the top 4, it will be through winning these matches, matching the other sides in the race for the Champions League places. Emery has set the team up well to play the top 6 sides, but wins in those games will count for very little if Arsenal follow them up with dropping points against teams in the bottom half of the league.