With two new players making their debuts against Southampton, there was always a chance that Arsenal wouldn’t be at their fluent best with Shkodran Mustafi and Lucas Perez understandably adapting to the team. As the debutants settled in, Arsenal laboured in the first 25 minutes on Saturday, but fought hard to come back from 1-0 down to get the first home win of the season.
While the passing wasn’t at the standards reached in the last league outing at Vicarage Road against Watford, Arsenal couldn’t be faulted for effort after going behind against Saints. Too often in recent seasons, Arsenal have been quick to go into their shell and the players have looked a bit disinterested after a set-back in a home game in which they’re expected to win. That wasn’t the case on Saturday. The eventual victory was secured through the sheer force of will rather than by ripping a stubborn Saints side apart with flowing football.
Even though Southampton’s goal had a large slice of fortune with Petr Cech tipping Tadic’s free-kick onto the bar before it ricocheted into the net off the goalkeeper’s back, it was impossible to argue that the visitors didn’t deserve the lead on the balance of play in the opening stages of the game. Arsenal afforded them too much possession and couldn’t get Lucas Perez involved in the game up front as Mesut Ozil had a slight of off-day by his incredibly high standards. It was the sort of game that needed something to give the Gunners a kick up the arse to get going, and going behind did spark Arsenal into action.
The other spark came from Arsenal’s vice-captain on his birthday. Laurent Koscielny has many great qualities that make him the best centre-back in the league (in my humble and, let’s face it, quite biased view). No-one knew that he had the ability to score with an overhead kick as one of those qualities. Southampton failed to clear Santi Cazorla’s corner and Koscielny executed the perfect bicycle finish to power the ball past Fraser Forster. It was a truly astonishing moment of skill and it came from a centre-back!
Wearing the captain’s armband in the absence of Per Mertesacker does seem to have brought out a higher level of performance from Koscielny as he is growing into the leadership role. At a time when Arsenal needed someone to take the game by the scruff if the neck on Saturday and take responsibility, Koscielny did it spectacularly. He’s led by example so far this season, so while the bizarre run of Arsenal club captains not playing in league games continues, Koscielny is the perfect man to inspire his team-mates.
In the second period, Southampton were happy to sit in and try and play on the break by bringing on Shane Long up front. Despite Arsenal improving and creating some openings, arguably the best chances fell to Long at the other end. One was a one-on-one with Petr Cech that he clipped wide, and other was a rebound from the goalkeeper that he casually rolled towards goal but Cech recovered to kick it clear. Long’s painful second half showing was complete when he was caught near the corner flag by Nacho Monreal, but the referee played on and Arsenal went down the other end of the field and ultimately scored the winner.
While Shane Long did legitimately get trodden on by Monreal, it was refreshing to see Arsenal not immediately kick the ball out of play. Unless it is a serious injury, Arsenal need to stop being nice about things as usually teams are just trying to slow the game down deliberately. This tougher edge to Arsenal was evident moments after Long was left on the ground as the Gunners didn’t even stop play with Laurent Koscielny down with a head injury in the Southampton penalty area. They caught the Saints napping with the Frenchman down as Jose Fonte hauled down Olivier Giroud to concede a penalty.
I’m writing this having only seen the foul live at the ground, and while I didn’t have the best angle on it, the defender grabbed a lot of Giroud’s shirt, and you’re giving the referee the chance to make a decision by manhandling the centre-forward in that way. Southampton’s only gripe is that play should probably have been stopped by the official because of the blow suffered by Koscielny. Santi Cazorla produced a nerveless spot kick to win the game following the lengthy delay for treatment for the skipper.
With the squad rotated ahead of the start of the Champions League, it showed the strength of the squad that Arsene Wenger was able to bring on Alexis Sanchez, Olivier Giroud and Alex Iwobi in the second half to offer a different threat to Southampton. Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain flattered to deceive in the wide areas, while Lucas Perez was lively through the middle but didn’t get much service to make a big impression on his first appearance for the club. Because of the changes, we didn’t see Lucas get the chance to link-up with Alexis. As a more mobile player than Giroud, it would be interesting to see what Lucas can do with the Chilean alongside him.
As for the other debutant, it was a tidy enough first showing from Shkodran Mustafi. The partnership with Koscielny will take time to develop, but that didn’t stop Mustafi winning some good tackles and getting stuck into his first Premier League game for the Gunners.
The centre of midfield continues to offer the most intrigue of any for Arsenal in terms of selection. Granit Xhaka played well at Watford but missed out on Saturday, although he will surely return for the Champions a League trip to Paris on Tuesday. Francis Coquelin was given a chance alongside Santi Cazorla, and while the two couldn’t get a hold on the game in the early stages, he grew into he game and helped inject some energy into the team with some typically combative midfield play. He doesn’t offer the control of Xhaka, but remains an excellent player to have in the squad.
It wasn’t a great performances on Saturday, but it was by no means a dreadful one. Albeit the wins came either side of the international break, but Arsenal have back-to-back wins, a full squad and it finally feels like the season has properly started. There’s also a harder, more determined edge to the team that saw them through to a big victory despite still trying to find their best form.