Sometimes the arrival at a destination is more important than the journey. Which is what football feels like sometimes and yesterday was one of those times, as we laboured terribly to a victory over an organised Southampton team who remained disciplined in their shape.
Yesterday’s game was like a really crappy journey to a holiday destination. It was like having to get up early, being stuck on a motorway at 5am because the Highways Agency are doing late night/early morning, down-to-one-lane repairs, followed by a delayed flight and then late arriving bags at the other end. But ultimately, when you get to your hotel/villa and the sun is shining and you’ve got a beer in hand, you forget about all of those previous frustrations.
Except in this case, as an Arsenal blogger, I sort of have to remember all of those little elements throughout the game.
Firstly, to the team selection, which I thought was certainly bizarre to say the least. A debut for Mustafi kind of made sense given his price tag and experience, but the line up further up the pitch did have me scratching my head, I have to say. For example, Francis Coquelin starting ahead of Xhaka, given that at Watford both the Swiss and Santi worked so well together didn’t make sense.
There was also a front three of The Ox, Theo and Perez that also didn’t really work. I was surprised to see our shiny new Spaniard start to be honest with you. We’ve seen with Elnenny and other players, how Arsène likes to bed them in, with that famous story about Pires being asked to sit on the side and watch for his first game (I think against Stoke). So that he was thrown in to start against Southampton was surprising. I guess we got a better look at the type of player he is and we certainly were able to see his work rate, but he never really got a sniff all afternoon, looking a little isolated at times I thought.
It also didn’t help that he was playing alongside an Ox who, sadly, looks a shadow of the great potential we saw last season. Given that we have such options in the squad now, I have to say I’m a little surprised that the Ox got the nod, because his start to the season has hardly warranted it. I get Theo on the other flank, because he’s started quite well, but he too didn’t exactly shine brightly in that first half.
The set up of the team felt very last season. What I mean by that is that at times last season we looked sluggish at home to so called weaker opponents and as I sat in an Irish bar in Portugal cursing at the TV for most of the game, I couldn’t help but continually reference last season’s 0-0 draw with Southampton. That gave was equally frustrating, but it felt like we were up against an immovable object in Fraser Forster, who made save after save. Yesterday he barely had to dust himself down.
I’ve been trying to rack my brains as to why we looked so lethargic at such an early stage of the season, and it’s difficult to look beyond the team selection by the manager and suggest that the XI should have been different given the opposition. At first I couldn’t understand why he wouldn’t utilise Alexis or Xhaka, but as was pointed out to me on Twitter, perhaps Arsène had Tuesday night’s away game in Paris on his mind. Arsène would of course never admit to that and would remain steadfast in his ‘we only focus on the next game’ line to the press, but Xhaka is a Coquelin upgrade by a mile, and the Ox is nowhere near the level of Alexis. Perhaps Alexis is a different case because he arrived home later from international duty, but I’ll be very surprised if Coquelin is still playing ahead of Xhaka on Tuesday evening.
So perhaps Arsène took a gamble on this game? If he did, then he’s finally had a bit of luck, because had we not been granted an injury-time penalty for Santi to dispatch, there’d be much angst in the Arsenal community this Sunday. But Le Boss has got away with it on this occasion.
Let’s also have a hand for birthday boy Laurent Koscielny, who’s bicycle kick to draw us level was well worth the price of admission for those inside the stadium, and was q goal that didn’t deserve to not be part of a winning team performance. Koscielny seems to get more and more important in each game and seeing him drag ourselves back in it after conceding to a quite brilliant free kick, to be fair, was a great sight.
So the return of the Premier League may not have come in swashbuckling style as we’d have liked, but at least we got what we came for: three points.