I wrote before the match that Arsenal really needed to take three points today given Mikel Arteta’s decision to rotate the side for the FA Cup match over the weekend and, in essence, concede that competition. Personally, I wouldn’t have rotated as much and would have deemed the pursuit of silverware worthy of a stronger starting 11 on Saturday. Folks, there is a reason Mikel Arteta manages Arsenal and I do not.
A fresher Arsenal side put in a commanding 3-1 performance today against a beleaguered Southampton team forced into using two backup fullbacks by small, muscular injuries. The kind of injuries you have a better chance to avoid when you’ve had more rest. Arsenal attacked the less experienced outside backs, pressed higher up the pitch, and thoroughly controlled the middle of the park en route to a comfortable win.
And it could have gone quite differently from the off. Less than a minute into the match, Alexandre Lacazette got in behind off a bad turnover by Alex McCarthy. The Saints’ keeper atoned for his mistake and saved the breakaway. One of those “he really should have scored there” plays that can be deflating early in a match.
The actual letdown came a few minutes later, when the Gunners went 1-0 down. Nicolas Pepe switched off on a corner, which allowed his mark, Stuart Armstrong, an open volley from 12 yards out. One of those “here we go again, same old Arsenal” moments that we’ve conditioned ourselves to resignedly accept.
But full credit to the Gunners, especially Nicolas Pepe, for the response. Alexandre Lacazette pressed Southampton into a turnover in their defensive third. The ball eventually got to Granit Xhaka, who hit a peach of a through ball to Pepe. The Frenchman showed good strength to shrug off a pullback, hold off a challenge, and slot it home to even things up. Sidenote: Arsenal were able to set up a press because they’d skillfully broken Southampton’s pressure a minute or two earlier, and even though the Saints had won a goal kick, the field-position shift from breaking the press made the difference.
Arsenal went ahead just before the 40 minute mark on a play that, from Southampton’s perspective, should never happen. The Gunners turned a goal kick, one on which the Saints won the first ball, into a goal in the blink of an eye. The second ball fell to Xhaka, who found Lacazette. Lacazette hit a fantastic, first-touch, half-pirouetting through ball for Bukayo Saka, who touched it around McCarthy and put it away. I’m not entirely sure what Alex McCarthy thought he was doing on the semi-breakaway, but in hindsight “anything other than what he did” would probably have been a better decision.
The Gunners sealed the points in the 72nd minute. Cedric Soares picked out Saka with an impressive 40+ yard, cross-field ball to switch the point of attack. Saka volleyed it back across the face first-time, and Lacazette deftly arranged his feet to steer it home, smashing into the post to ensure he scored.
There’s little to critique from today’s match. A few minor mistakes here and there, and one “David Luiz” from David Luiz, but overall, it was a very good performance. Bukayo Saka’s goal and assist earn him Man of the Match honors, but you could give it to several other players. Cedric Soares, Nicolas Pepe, Thomas Partey, Granit Xhaka, Alexandre Lacazette, Rob Holding, and Bernd Leno all had particularly good games. Pepe had one of his best games in an Arsenal shirt, which may have had something to do with him playing on the left side instead of the right.
Tactically, I think Mikel Arteta got it exactly right. Arsenal pressed more than they normally do, and Bukayo Saka really went at an overmatched Jake Vokins. The setup left both Cedric and Hector Bellerin a bit exposed and isolated, but they both did pretty well. Bellerin, especially, after he picked up an early, extremely soft yellow card.
Thomas Partey and Emile Smith Rowe were both subbed off deep into the second half with what appeared to be cramps. Neither looked to have picked up anything serious, but we’ll hold our collective breath for official word. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang missed out again for personal reasons — no idea what’s happening, but of course, we’re wishing him nothing but the best.
Arsenal are playing well. They have taken 16 of the last 18 points on offer in the Premier League. The club is expected to announce the Martin Ødegaard loan in the next day or two. They’re just five points out of a Champions League place (yes, I know games in hand exist). I’m excited. They really could make something of what, a little more than a month ago, looked like it could be a completely lost season.
Bring on Manchester United at the Emirates on Saturday.