If Arsenal were under illusions about how seriously to take the match with Southampton, they were given a wake-up call in the first two minutes of the game as the Saints were incredibly quick to press the Gunners high up the pitch. Sitting in third at the start of the day, it was easy to see why Southampton have made such an impressive start to the season.
However, for all of their pressure on Arsenal, it was somewhat ironic that Southampton’s downfall came from the Gunners pressuring high up the pitch. Goalkeeper Artur Boruc was chased down by Olivier Giroud, tried to take do a couple of Cryuff turns before getting tackled by Giroud, giving the Frenchman a tap-in to make it 1-0.
A lucky goal? Yes. However Giroud did well to rush the goalkeeper and force the error. The goal also came at the end of a good period of Arsenal possession and chances when Jack Wilshere and Aaron Ramsey were inches away from scoring sumptuous goals, making the fortunate goal feel more deserved.
Ramsey’s Kanu-esque back heel that hit the post came in a move that featured numerous passes before Arsenal created the space in the middle for the Welshman. Southampton had worked hard to push the Gunners away from goal, but Arsenal still worked the ball around to make space to create an opportunity.
Having netted the first goal, Olivier Giroud slammed home the penalty near the end of the game to seal the win. Even though both goals were hardly classics, it was helpful for the Frenchman’s confidence to get back on the score sheet again. Having had a tough game for France in Ukraine during the international break, there was a risk that his confidence could have dipped. That shouldn’t be an issue after his match winning brace on Saturday.
It was interesting to watch Giroud on Saturday, especially when there were periods when Southampton dominated possession. The amount of work he does for the team is phenomenal. Centre-backs must hate playing against him because he is prepared to be the physical presence to challenge for the ball. No opposing centre-back gets an easy clearance now because they will be jumping against the Frenchman every time. He took plenty of kicks and bumps on Saturday, but he didn’t let it deter him. He might not have the pace to challenge teams, but with Giroud up front, Arsenal will no longer get bullied by back-fours. The Frenchman is becoming increasingly streetwise with every game.
Giroud’s lack of pace should become less of an issue as Theo Walcott made a welcome return from injury against Southampton. It’ll take him a few games to get back to full fitness and match sharpness, but to have him as an outlet in the team will make a real difference. Arsene Wenger has done well with what he’s had available considering that all of his regular wingers have been out injured at times this season, but apart from Oxlade-Chamberlain, no-one else can offer the sort of searing pace and danger in behind defences that Walcott does.
So whilst the attack did enough to get the three points, Arsenal’s defence once again looked impressive. In Wojciech Szczesny’s first appearance since signing a new contract, he looked solid and didn’t do anything stupid like Boruc. Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny were excellent, again. Excluding the Capital One Cup defeat to Chelsea, Arsenal have only conceded one goal in the last month, which was the set-piece against Manchester United. Four clean sheets in five games shows how consistent the Gunners have become at the back.
The only real negative was the performance of Mikel Arteta, who had an uncharacteristically below-par game. Given how rare a poor Arteta performance is, it’s nothing to be too worried about, but was just slightly strange to see. Mathieu Flamini was suspended for the game, so his return means there is plenty of scope for rotation in the centre of midfield. With Walcott available again, the competition for the three central positions will hot up even more as the man who misses out will no longer get to play on the right instead. When Arteta went off injured near the end of the game, there was still a noticeable hole in the Gunners’ midfield. Even when not playing well, Arteta’s disciplined positioning is important.
Southampton have already won at Anfield and drawn at Old Trafford this season, so whilst it wasn’t a vintage Arsenal performance, it was a good win after the international break. Other results mean that the Gunners have a four point lead at the top of the table, and will be top for at least a few more weeks. Southampton will take plenty of points off the top teams this season, so Arsenal did well to dodge not slip-up in a real banana-skin match.