Arsenal 2 – 0 Southampton
1 – 0 Giroud (22)
2 – 0 Giroud (86 pen)
Ordinarily, scoring a brace of goals against the third-placed team would have brought the headlines but this morning, I suspect Wojciech Szczesny is feeling better about the world than Olivier Giroud. Having seen off Lukasz Fabianski at club and international level, the Pole turned his focus on Artur Boruc and saw Brian Clough’s words about Jan Tomaszeski brought to life with tomfoolery of the highest order. Against that backdrop, Szczesny produced a solid performance, reliable when Southampton found space to keep a clean sheet.
Post-match, Arsène was quick to point to the key to the victory,
We have improved our defensive stability. After an international break you have always two challenges, one is to get the team to focus again as a team because we have been spread all over the world, and you have very little time to get the focus point right. The second is physical, because they all come back in different levels of fatigue, some have not trained a lot. The first point we got right, the team were highly focused, we suffered a bit physically but overall the concentration was there.
Not for Arsenal yesterday the stumble to victory which sometimes restarts the Premier League campaign after an international break. Defeat in these fixtures is rare as is the cohesive and consistent performance produced yesterday. Arsenal worked hard, the tired and weary forcing every muscle and sinew to stretch further than they might have wanted to and credit Southampton for making their hosts work for the victory, even with a goalkeeper who did not so much shoot them in the foot, as amputate the leg.
A mix of lunacy and tenacity brought the opening goal. Boruc had the time to clear, once comfortably, maybe twice but he could have conceded a corner or throw-in on any number of occasions as he practised his moves to the Chubby Checker song book. Giroud followed the lead, harassing the Pole into one twist too far before pouncing to snaffle the ball and slot home. What words his manager found to describe the goalkeeper’s antics are probably best left hanging in the crisp north London air.
Arsenal might have had the lead before then, Jack Wilshere’s skated the tackles and produced the deftest of chips over Boruc, rebounding off the far post, tantalising out of Giroud’s reach and gratefully clasped by the desperate goalkeeper. Aaron Ramsey almost went one better, clipping Özil’s cross with the inside of his heel on to the post. The warnings had been given but when the lead came, it was the most unexpected of sources.
Yet Olivier Giroud deserves no more. He has worked hard all season, something his manager acknowledged in the media on a frequent basis and into double-figures for goals this season, the French striker has as healthy an appetite for creating goals as well as scoring. Confidence is clearly coursing through his veins, relief perhaps having admitted to being concerned by the club’s pursuit of Gonzalo Higuain. Whatever the reason, his first half of the season is something to admire and a consistent improvement that can be traced since he joined the club. In difficult personal circumstances, his depth of his performance is underlined.
That confidence was evident in the calm manner he despatched his spot-kick to confirm the points. The penalty was awarded after Per Mertesacker’s shirt was clearly pulled by Fonte but it is not hard to understand why Southampton questioned the decision. Not that they wondered what transgression had occurred, simply why Mr Clattenburg punished them when referees the world over ignore such offences on an alarmingly regular basis. Not Arsenal’s concern until they too are on the receiving end. Perhaps defenders will take note and ease off from such ‘dark arts’? No, I am not expecting it either.
As it is, the manager was pleased with the response to the defeat at Old Trafford. The return of Theo Walcott enabled him to rotate the side as the match progressed, to rest the creative hub, especially Santi Cazorla who has racked up enough air miles with the Spanish national team to have booked his return ticket on the first passenger flight to the moon. Rotation will become the norm, allowing a more measured approach to building Jack Wilshere’s fitness than the injuries which ravaged the squad in the opening months of the season allowed. The England international played the ninety minutes and was quick to confirm afterwards that there had been little ill-effects on his ankle. As if anyone really believes a player when they talk of their fitness!
Whilst others take the headlines, the defence continues to improve and remain resolute in the face of lapses ahead of them. Southampton were gifted too much space at times but Mertesacker and Koscielny were resolute when required. The settled nature of the team selection is as important as the understanding the Franco-German axis has built. Confidence is evident in the team, none more so than in the back four. As much as people like to refer to the midfield and it is the jewel in the crown, the defence is the framework holding it all in place. Flawed it may be, far from perfect at times, it is nonetheless stronger and constantly improving as confidence grows.
The important thing for Arsenal was not just the result but taking advantage of the result in the Merseyside derby. Liverpool’s draw needed to be taken advantage of and was with the creation of a four point gap at the top. A shame West Ham could not oblige with damage to Chelsea’s challenge but then the media would have pushed this as others discarding the chance to lead the Premier League and not Arsenal earning that right. There are difficult games to come and the cushion will stand the squad in good stead. If it is extended by the time City, Everton and Chelsea provide the opposition so much the better for that signals a continuation of good form.