Had you almost forgotten that feeling? You know the one I’m talking about. You know! The one where an Arsenal team has started to deliver consistent results on the pitch and looked like a side that is in the top quarter of the league. Yeah, that feeling, one which we had all thought was gone for this season for sure.
I had hope ahead of yesterday’s game. I believed the players we had were capable of getting a result from a technical ability point of view, but they were not there from a mental point of view. To use a colloquialism of the modern game, that their ‘heads had gone’ when it comes to this season and certainly this manager and whilst I still think change is needed and I’m still not convinced the players are 100% in his corner, it’s clear that we’ve managed to cobble together some form. And to be honest with you, ahead of the FA Cup final, that’s all I’ve really ever wanted over the last few weeks, because that is all we’re really now playing for.
The line up was the same as the weekend’s victory against United, with only the injured Koscielny being replaced by Mustafi, but the continuity in the side didn’t stop Southampton having the better of the first half. Indeed, it took a couple of fine stops from Cech to keep us level and thankfully, the Czech ‘keeper seems to have suddenly found his form. His kicking still leaves a lot to be desired of but that’s just an affliction that affects all Arsenal ‘keepers, so we’ve just gotten used to that over the years at The Arsenal, haven’t we?
So that first half then. Blimey. It didn’t half have the feeling of a pre-season friendly. The muted atmosphere, the lack of any real energy and drive from either side until about 30 minutes, with the occasional transition of possession from both sides to give the hint of something happening. To me it felt like we started how we’ve started all of our games with this new formation; we seem to be tepid and apprehensive of our opposition, preferring to keep defensive shape and not really throw any initial jabs at our opponents to test out their proverbial jaw. That happened for Boro, City, West Ham, certainly Spurs and it felt like last night against Southampton. Yet when we do decide to throw a metaphorical fist in anger and land a decent punch/chance, we seem to grow in to games a bit more.
In that first half we had few chances and the injury to Ox was the only bit of news we could take. Wenger confirmed it’s his hammy that’s gone twangy and if that’s the case it might be a race against time for the cup final for him. It’s a shame but none of us should be surprised. I saw a Tweet last night that said he’s only ever started seven games in row for Arsenal since he joined the club, which gives an indication on his fitness levels and probably why he isn’t one of our best players by now. Fingers crossed it was a precaution though and he’s back in time for the cup final at the end of May.
It’ll give Hector a chance in this formation though and let’s be honest it’s not the worst back up we could have hoped for. He had a good game I thought, which is unsurprising because this formation allows the wing backs to take more of a pivotal position in the side getting in behind defences and I thought he and Gibbs did that well all night. Gibbs needs to sort out his end product because he seems to have trouble picking the right option all of the time, but at least we’re getting players in to those positions.
The goal coming on 60 minutes was handy though, because I was watching the game on a dodgy stream and starting to get a little agitated with the possibility of our season petering out, with me confined to watch it on a small iPhone screen. Alexis had been shocking all night again. Were he not the man that pops up with important goals for us, there wouldn’t be many calling for a renewal I don’t think. He’s looked like he’s giving the ball away even more than he’s ever done in the tail end of this season and up until his goal I was certainly quite frustrated with his play. Gesticulating all the time, yet he gives the ball away – or hangs on to it too long – more than anyone in this team sometimes. I haven’t quite reached Diaby levels of shouting “RELEASE THE EFFING BALL!” yet, but I felt it coming on as the game went on.
But he does what Alexis does. He scored a vital goal that enabled Southampton to press forward and space to open up across the pitch, which gave us opportunities like the second goal. Ramsey’s header after Alexis’ chip was perfectly weighted for Ollie G and I found myself fist pumping the air again. I like that feeling. I like feeling joy rather than relief, or despair, when it comes to The Arsenal.
In that second half, after we’d thrown a few initial punches and realised we were in a match, we looked more like a side that could go on and win the match, I thought. We’re still a little disjointed going forward and Welbeck and Özil did okayish, but the defensive solidity does afford us the ability to have a slower build up in games. We haven’t been conceding early and giving ourselves mountains to climb in matches and that’s allowing us to grow in to games and kick on and get results. That’s a decent foundation to build on and whilst I still think fourth is beyond us – West Ham won’t do us any favours at the weekend – as I’ve been saying for some weeks this is about momentum for the cup final and the players are at least allowing us hope that we can go in to that game with a bit of form in this formation.
It would be a lengthy blog if I went in to detail on all of the players’ individual performances last night, but it’s fair to say that all of them had good games at St Mary’s. Mustafi was very good, as was Monreal and Holding, and the Xhaka/Ramsey partnership is finally looking like it’s clicking as we all thought it would at the beginning of the season. We still need to get Özil back to his best, because I think there are passes he’s not trying at the moment, possibly due to his confidence. But he’s still contributing enough to justify his inclusion in the team.
Saturday evening sees us play Stoke away at a ground we never seem to get a result at. West Ham vs Liverpool is a 2.15pm kick off on Sunday and so if by some manner of small miracle we actually get a result in Mordor, at least it puts the pressure on for them lot in Scouse Land.
And at this stage, that’s all we could ask for.
Catch you tomorrow.