We won a game! Normally, I don’t sound surprised every time Arsenal wins a game. But considering what we’re going through, I have never been more excited for a win against a bottom-half club like Southampton FC.
Anyway, on to the match analysis, I believe most of us where shocked when we looked at the midfield three that were starting against Southampton FC. I also believe that people thought Xhaka was going to play more as the defensive midfielder. To this, I’d like to tell those people to watch Xhaka’s positioning more, both on and off the ball under Arteta.
What has kept baffling us even further is the exclusion of Ozil from the starting XI. Thing is, with Ozil growing older and with his so-called languid playing style, he usually gets run over by teams that press high. And the three teams that we’ve faced so far since the Premier League restarted, are known to press high which in my opinion could be exactly what played in Arteta minds which making the team sheet for the three games so far.
I’d rather have Ozil play against teams that sit deep and put through a killer pass than have him being mauled by Hojbjerg and Ward-Prowse. Teams strength on paper really doesn’t matter, what matters in reality is the shape of the team both with and without the ball. What matters is the on pitch intensity ability to win those 50-50 chances on the field.
And as predicted, the Saints began the game with a high press. This has been the norm under the ‘Alpine Klopp’, Ralph Hasenhüttl. Against Southampton, when in possession of the ball, we maintained a 3-2-5 shape, with Tierney being the left-sided centre-back and Bellerin given the license to run forward and burn that pace he possesses. Holding was the focal point of the 3-man defence with Mustafi playing on his right to cover the space left by Bellerin. Quite an adept formation that really held its ground despite Mustafi on the pitch.
Aubameyang and Pepe were asked to be narrower and attack the goal as much as possible. It was surprising to see the Gabon striker miss golden opportunities like the one he missed early in the first half. Tierney placed a beautifully lofted ball onto Aubameyang’s feet, expecting him to finish like he always does. But no! it hits the upright.
Without the ball, we shifted to more of a 4-4-2 formation, with Saka and Pepe being wide out midfielders. Aubameyang and Nketiah moving up to be the front two.
The first goal for Arsenal was what experts would call – a ‘poacher’s goal’. McCarthy had two easy options to pass, but he couldn’t pick a proper pass with Nketiah hot on his heels. The youngster intercepted the intended pass and astutely finished it off making it look much easier than it was. Moving on, Arsenal were fairly comfortable on the ball in the first half, which is a direct contrast to what happened in the second half.
Against Arsenal, Southampton FC went for a 4-4-2 formation, with Bertrand, Ings, and Redmond trying to attack the space left by Bellerin. Ralph tried to attack that space with Armstrong but later made him switch with Redmond. Quick one-touch triangular passing got the Saints out of the pressing traps set by the Gunners.
The second half is where Southampton stepped up a gear and made Arsenal really look like a 10th placed team in the English Premier League. They pressed higher, seemed much more comfortable on the ball, and were now attacking the other side with Spurs loanee Kyle Walker-Peters leading the charge. Ward-Prowse supported the full-back, playing behind him on the right and trying to cross the ball more frequently with the target man being Ings. Therefore, Arteta shifted to a 5-3-2 without the ball, with Saka being the left-back and Tierney (later Kolasinac) sliding in as the left-sided centre-back.
The second goal was much better than the first and really helped settle in the nerves at the ground. Lacazette, substituted on for Nketiah, took the free-kick which hit the wall. The Frenchman subsequently had another go at the goal which was saved by McCarthy only for Willock (substituted on for Pepe) to slot the loose ball home. I think it’s fair to say that the kids have become men and when Arsenal really needed to turn around from an abysmal restart to the League campaign, its befitting to see two young Hale End graduates stepping up the task and leading the charts.
What was most surprising to me was the performance of Holding. He looked like a man on a mission, winning all 4 of his aerial duels, completing 41 passes and clearing the ball 8 times. If he manages to stay fit and replicate this performance for the rest of the season, we can really improve on our abject defensive records, gather more clean sheets, and hopefully, more wins along the win. The way he kept Danny Ings quiet is quite marvellous and I think it really bodes well for the next season as well.
Another thing that pleasantly surprised me is the difference between Martinez and Leno when it came to goal-kicks. Leno looks for the long pass or the free man in midfield. Martinez, on the other hand, looked to go long and initiate more counters. That beautiful long ball to Aubameyang, which unfortunately didn’t lead to a goal, was absolute magic. We don’t need a Bravo or a Hart, we have our Damien Martinez and he is Arsenal through and through.
The game ended with the possession being fairly even (Southampton- 48%, Arsenal- 52%), more shots on target from us (5 for us, 3 for them), more fouls by us and a red card for defender Jack Stephens, whose foul led to the second goal. With the score at 0-2 against Southampton FC, From here on I’m all but cautiously optimistic because after all its Arsenal and anything can happen on any day.