Isn’t it lovely starting off the middle of the week with the sweet smell of victory in your nostrils?
That’s what we got yesterday after Arsenal picked up an away day victory to Southampton and, I have to tell you there was a lot to like about yesterday’s win.
Firstly, Southampton are a good side, a high intensity side. They have shown just how good they are at times this season and plenty of teams have – and will – be outdone by their intensity and press. Going in to the game my worry was that individual errors and mistakes with us sitting deep in our half could cost us as Southampton look to turn the ball over and catch us in transition. But Arteta had a plan.
Which brings me to my second plus point of the evening (and there will be a fair few in this blog methinks), which was Arteta and his tactics, which were spot on yesterday. There were a few dissenters at the weekend after Arteta rotated in some players and whilst some of those rotated players served up a pretty drab affair against a full strength Southampton side, in this game it was a different Arsenal with a different approach and it played dividends. We had fresher legs, we had no muscular injuries (although Smith-Rowe went off in the game – hopefully just a precaution but let’s keep an eye on that one), we were able to play players with intensity and drive and Arteta had learned from the insipid weekend defeat.
He knew that in order to stop the Southampton press we needed to fight fire with fire and so he did just that, pushing our full backs hirer up the pitch and instructing the front four of Pepe, Lacazette, Saka and Smith-Rowe to press Southampton’s back four into playing longer balls, which of course increases the probability of losing the ball in comparison to short passing. It was clever and showed that whilst he said that no coach wants to play the same team in quick succession, for somebody like Arteta it is an opportunity to learn from the mistakes of the previous game plan and enact something different.
Which is what we did. Alright, it all felt a little familiar and worrying after just two minutes when Armstrong fired in from the edge of the box, but even before that goal so early Lacazette had been put through from Xhaka, so perhaps we should have known that there would be more opportunities if the team stuck to Arteta’s gameplan. Which they did.
And we found ourselves level within ten minutes and of all of the players on that pitch who needed a confidence shot of adrenaline it was Nico Pepe, so I personally was delighted for him that he got on the scoresheet and overall put in arguably his best performance of the season. He was energetic, he drove at Southampton defenders with the ball, but also he had a very composed finish to level us up, once again put through by the excellent Granit Xhaka. This will do Pepe the world of good and drew praise from Arteta in his post-match presser too. I listened to the Arsecast on Monday and one of the questions Andrew and James were asked was about cutting Pepe some slack because he hadn’t played with a number 10 like Smith-Rowe before. Well, he’s played with Ozil and so it isn’t true that he has had no game time with a player in the 10 role, but Smith Rowe is a little different to Ozil and the press that Smith Rowe delivered yesterday, as well as the spaces he occupied to cut off passing lanes, meant that Pepe had a different job to do.
He also played on the left and I wonder if this will tempt Mikel into trying that again. It clearly worked for him yesterday and this performance – while just a small sample size and we need to see more of that from him – will hopefully give Arteta some options to think of in the coming games. We will need that on this very difficult run that we’re embarking on.
Pepe was grand, but on the other flank we have a player who is thriving as an inverted wide man and Bukayo Saka had his man on toast all evening. He looked like he could go past him at will but not only that, he also showed that he has end product and is delivering that in spades right now. Our goal to put us in front was another well-worked one and whilst I thought Lacazette was caught on his heels a few too many times for my liking last night, you can’t fault his excellent pass to set Saka away. BUt the youngster still had a lot to do and it was only when I saw the replay that I realised just how good the goal was. Watch it again from a different angle and you see Saka running clear, taking one touch to move the ball away from the ‘keeper, then a second to knock it in with his weaker foot. Amazing stuff.
But as well as that take a look at the third goal and Lacazette’s tap in. A fantastic ball across from the excellent Cedric, but Saka takes just one touch to pass the ball across to the striker. His body position is excellent and that allows him to cushion the ball across to Laca on his weaker foot. It was such a fantastic night for him and he fully deserved his man-of-the-match performance. He is ‘doing bits’ as the kids say in that right wing position and I think we should be rather excited based on his current form if he can continue this run and stay free from injury.
There were so many performances to wax lyrical about though. That midfield duo of Partey and Xhaka is working a treat. Both are involving each other, finding each other, plus the Ghanaian is so composed in any area of the pitch. He is strong but his ability and close control with the ball at his feet is…dare I say it…Vieira-like. Long may he remain fit and long may we benefit from having him in the centre of the park.
Let’s also give props to our defence too. Ok, we switched off for the Southampton goal, but Holding and Cedric were superb and despite the fact that I think Bellerin was getting passed too easily at times in the first and second half, he held firm and did ok in the end. Luiz looked a liability at times – especially at the end – but broadly speaking did ok in the most part.
And we picked up the three points. This is the first in our series of really tough games and we navigated it. Man United will pose us a much tougher test and I hope we are ready for it at the weekend, but at least we go into the game in a bit of form and with players coming back fit and ready for the battle.
You never know, we might even get a certain official confirmation of a reinforcement today too, so let’s see if more good news comes our way this afternoon.