Southampton 1 – 1 Arsenal
An Olivier Giroud header, courtesy of a flick he practices in the mirror each morning, saved us at St Mary’s. It was an unlikely equaliser because this was Arsenal at their narcissistic worst. All the possession in the world but no end product; Fraser Forster won’t have many less troubling afternoons in his career against top six clubs, let alone this season.
We took a point and for that, I’m feeling grateful. We deserved it, but we just didn’t look like taking it. Southampton took an early lead and threatened to blow us away as the same fault resurfaced. And it genuinely was the same fault; the defending was worse than last weekend.
Arsène felt that part of the problem was psychological. Speaking post-match, he offered the view that we talked ourselves into a poor performance:
I felt that the Manchester United game played a bit of a part in the head of our defenders. It was a bit in their head and they were a bit apprehensive to start well again and that’s why it is sometimes not good to talk about the problem because you create a bigger one.
So, we can’t talk about our faults? No wonder they recur so frequently; they are never addressed. There is a deeper flaw than that. Per Mertesacker played like a man who has seen very little first-team football this season. I was re-assured before kick-off, believing he might steady the ship as he has in the past.
After fifteen minutes, it was obvious that wasn’t happening. His pass was intercepted and Austin ran into the space that the German left; 1 – 0. The same player given the same space only found Cech making a good stop minutes later before Austin once again found space, this time the woodwork and the offside flag ensured we stayed in the game.
It was another defensive horror show as the back three not only looked like they hadn’t trained together, but had never met previously either.
Had Arsène hooked Mertesacker at that point, no-one would have complained. Not even Per, I suspect. But we muddled through, gradually taking control with oodles of possession and Southampton happily sat back to frustrate.
That makes it seem as if Per was the problem but he wasn’t as such. Laurent Koscielny is playing like a man whose Achilles needs proper treatment. We can’t do it; he’s our best centre-back at present which underlines the depth of the issues in the back five. Nacho Monreal is firefighting but getting caught up in the malaise as well. As a unit, the back three irrespective of composition, isn’t working effectively.
Which is a genuine concern. Even against BATE, we gave up plenty of opportunities which suggests there’s a basic problem with the work being done on the training pitch since that was different personnel. We’re heading for a moment when the manager has to do something drastic, such as returning to a flat back four. The question is whether we will suffer beforehand or will it be pre-emptive.
It’s not the only issue or maybe even our biggest issue. Whereas last weekend’s attacking play was dynamic until it came to putting the ball into the net, yesterday it was meandering. Alexis scurried forward, gave the ball away and scurried after it, giving the air of a man desperately trying to inject some life into the performance while simultaneously not wanting to be there.
Yet this was the man who provided the assist for Giroud’s header. Alexis may not be scoring or creating as many as previous seasons but frankly, there was no-one else creating yesterday. Özil worked hard but typified Arsenal when he broke on the counter late on; the promise of the move petered out as he turned aimlessly into Southampton defenders.
Away from home this season, we’ve played 8 games and scored 9 goals, 5 of which came in one game. So in 7 games, we’ve found the net 4 times. You won’t win games with a rickety defence unless your attack is on fire. You don’t win games with a misfiring attack without a strong defence; we’ve gone for the worst of both worlds.
We just didn’t look like winning, which is not a problem when somebody pops up with goals at unexpected moments. Failing that, a dubious refereeing decision in your favour always helps. This weekend, it went against us; Alexandre Lacazette wiped out in the Southampton area which the referee inexplicably ignored. It’s moments like that where you want the official to talk to the media after, explain a decision.
However, that isn’t a problem if you are finishing the chances created. To be honest, yesterday was a match to send you to sleep. We strolled around, passed ad infinitum, trying all the while to be stylish and purposeful but lacking intent. Just as with the penalty incident, there was no passion. None of the Arsenal players complained to the referee about the challenge which floored Lacazette; they were too passive.
That ought to have fired them up but instead, the meandered and mumbled. Too many of the first team know that no matter how poorly/badly/averagely they play, they play; there’s no pressure on them for their place in the side.
Xhaka, ponderous in possession far too often, is a pale shadow of the man Arsenal scouted but it begs the question whether he is the right man for the role assigned to him. Another square peg? I think not, more an ellipse being pushed into a round hole. Put a purely defensive midfielder alongside him and he will stroll around pinging passes about. He isn’t a defensive midfielder himself.
Nor is Ramsey whose hamstring twang opens the door back into the first team for Jack Wilshere. Neither was bad yesterday, neither was inspiring either. You looked for the spark to come and there was nothing from anyone; no-one in that team took the game by the scruff of the neck and said to their team-mates, “This isn’t good enough!”
This is a familiar post-match refrain, one I could go back through the past decade and pick out a number of times in a season. We didn’t lose and that’s a positive. We didn’t take advantage of a woeful Liverpool performance either, nor Chelsea’s defeat.
West Ham on Wednesday looks a trickier fixture than it was thanks to their victory and our lack of application. It’s up to Arsène to find the solutions quickly.
Finally, there’s a much under-rated album on Dad’s Jukebox to keep you groovin’ until the Europa League draw later today.