Southampton 3 – 2 Arsenal
Defeat was inevitable at some point and Unai Emery is too long in the footballing tooth not to know it. Even with an embarrassment of riches in Paris, his teams still lost. That’s football; this morning, however, the sting of defeat comes from the manner in which we lost.
Emery himself contributed with his team selection. Granit Xhaka as the left-sided centre-back was an experiment which didn’t work. We were outfought in midfield during the first half and in the second when we needed some impetus, Mesut Ozil arrived instead of Aaron Ramsey. Not every tactical switch can have the desired effect.
Yet had Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang had his shooting boots on, we might have salvaged a point or more. An off-day at both ends of the pitch. It could be worse; we might be Manchester United fans licking their wounds this morning. Anyone who thinks throwing Wednesday night is a good idea might like to consider Thursday morning in their rationale first.
Laurent Koscielny is the pantomime villain; hung, drawn and quartered, before being left dangling at Traitor’s Gate for the crows to pick at.
He didn’t enjoy the best of returns to the first-team. Then again, playing with a right-back and midfielder in a back three was hardly the combination he expected.
However, each of the three goals came from defensive errors, there’s no way to pretty things up. Not just from the back three; everyone certainly contributed in their own big way.
Koscielny must hold his hands up for the first; it highlighted his rustiness with Ings scoring the first of three headed goals. We didn’t stop a good cross from coming in, leaving Ings to give it the finish the ball deserved.
One-down without any panic setting in.
Where Was Our Saviour?
That laissez-faire attitude was almost justified five minutes later when Henrikh Mkhitaryan met Nacho Monreal’s cross to head home the equaliser. One-all and the second half still to come; things weren’t looking so bad after all.
Until two minutes before the interval. Not only did Ings grab his second but we lost Hector Bellerin to injury. That was after Guendouzi and Iwobi allowed Redmond all the time in the world to deliver another excellent cross. Ings again applied the finish.
It was a move which summed up our first half performance. Not at the races for most of the opening twenty minutes, the equaliser knocked the stuffing out of Southampton. Yet they regrouped, responded and I hope Unai Emery read us the riot act at the interval.
At this point, I expected Ramsey to appear, switching to a flat-back four. Instead, it was Lacazette who added a bit of a goal-threat but for the first time since Chelsea, there was no second-half onslaught. We continued to plod yet inexplicably found ourselves level. Mkhitaryan’s shot took the slightest of deflections but that was all it needed to wrong-foot the Southampton ‘keeper. Job done; now claim the points.
Except we then lost another defender to injury when Stephan Lichtsteiner came out of a foul worse for wear and limped off. Ainsley Maitland-Niles slotted in on the right.
Mesut Ozil appeared in the 70th minute as a substitute and was largely anonymous. It was a curious move; his form doesn’t dictate a place in the side and he isn’t going to make that much difference in 20 minutes. I’d prefer Ramsey’s energy and directness; he is much more of a goal threat and a problem for Southampton to solve.
Veni, Vidi, Cobblers…
Inevitably, Southampton scored a third; a comedy of errors which leaves Bernd Leno in a bad light. Minutes earlier, he’d pulled off a blinding save to stop the home side taking the lead. This time, however, he played like Jay Leno.
The game was up. We knew it, they knew it; there was no second-half comeback. Unai was fresh out of miracles with the only consolation being that Shane Long failed to score.
Post-match, Emery accepted defeat phlegmatically. I get the impression he won’t be so forgiving behind closed doors. He did, however, make a salient point. “Our game today was very similar to how we have played before,” he said. Crucially adding, “but the result is different.”
Therein is the rub. We are no closer to being a first-half team than we were a month ago. It’s a problem which must be addressed if we are to challenge for the title in the future. No team wins the league in 19 games so why do we think it’s acceptable to play for 45 minutes.
As much as that is Emery’s overall responsibility, the players need to ask themselves why we are so poor during the first half in every match? It isn’t a coincidence, it’s a habit. Is there is a collective psychology at play to not concede defeat before half-time?
Whatever the case, we need to find a solution quickly.