Arsenal returned to winning ways as they edged past a decent Southampton side 2-0 at the Emirates Stadium, to go four points clear at the top of the Premier League. Olivier Giroud scored two gift-wrapped goals, one from the penalty spot, in a game that saw a return to the squad for Theo Walcott against his former club.
The visitors started the brighter of the two sides with plenty of early possession and desire throughout the pitch, but Arsenal then grew into the game and hit the post twice.
Firstly it was from Jack Wilshere, who chipped the ball delightfully over Artur Boruc in the Southampton goal but the ball came back off the far post straight into the arms of the ‘keeper. Aaron Ramsey then hit the same post shortly afterwards; magically flicking Mesut Ozil’s cross first time towards goal with Boruc well beaten, but the woodwork kept the scores level.
Many a time we’ve seen opposition goalkeepers come to the Emirates and play out of their skin, but it’s safe to say that Boruc experienced the opposite yesterday. His goal kicks regularly went straight out of play as he struggled to find his range, and it was his embarrassing mistake that allowed Arsenal to go in front.
He had the ball at his feet with Olivier Giroud closing him down to put pressure on the clearance, but instead of getting rid of the ball he tried to be clever and beat Giroud, however it backfired spectacularly as the Frenchman nicked the ball and scored into an empty goal making it 1-0 to The Arsenal.
Southampton responded well and picked up the pace after going behind, forcing two good saves from Wojciech Szczesny before half time from Adam Lallana and Jay Rodriguez respectively, both coming on the back of Mikel Arteta errors as the captain had a sloppy first half in possession.
The second half started in similar fashion to the first with Southampton coming out of the blocks faster, and Lallana again tested Szczesny from range following a smart break but the shot was straight at our number one.
It again took Arsenal about ten minutes to get going but we gained momentum as the half went on, coming close with attempts from Ozil and Wilshere but both were easily enough dealt with by Boruc.
Walcott was introduced on the 70-minute mark for the hard-working Santi Cazorla and although it was great to have our speedster back, he struggled to get involved in the game and his lack of match practice was evident. He did see a good strike fly just wide of Boruc’s goal from the edge of the area and it’s hard not to be excited about Theo getting back to his best and hopefully thriving in a side with Ozil and company.
Ricky Lambert had a shot deflected wide and Victor Wanyama struck over from the edge of the area following a corner in Southampton’s final chances of the game, despite fears of us being more open defensively in midfield after Arteta went off with an injury with 15 minutes to go, replaced by Tomas Rosicky, as Ramsey, Wilshere and Rosicky combined to fill the vacant defensive midfield spot without worry. Nacho Monreal was also brought on for Ozil in the trademark “see the game off” Wenger substitution, yet the Spaniard did enjoy plenty of space on the left as Southampton pushed numbers forward looking for any kind of opening to get level.
That didn’t happen though and Arsenal were awarded a penalty in the 86th minute, as Per Mertesacker was pulled back by Jose Fonte off a corner and Mark Clattenburg, who had seemed unwilling to let the game flow at times, correctly pointed to the spot.
With regular taker Arteta off the pitch, Giroud stepped up and sent Boruc the wrong way to cap off a superb individual performance and that saw us over the line with a fine 2-0 victory, taking us four points clear in the League following Liverpool’s earlier draw in the Merseyside Derby.
It was a game in which we weren’t at our best, but we did enough to be deserving of the three points for sure even though the visitors handed both goals to us on a plate. Giroud will rightly get the headlines as the double goal scorer, but it wasn’t just his goals that made him the stand out player on the pitch yesterday. His defensive work at set pieces was phenomenal, regularly getting to the ball first and clearing our lines, whilst his hold up play up front was as impressive as ever too.
For a player who is so often labelled by many as “good, but not quite the world class we need”, he’s really staking a claim that he’s able to progress into the latter category. There are still calls for Wenger to bring in a new striker in January, and the Manager alluded to this in his Friday press conference, stating that he’s not against that idea but that mid-season deals are always difficult to conclude
It’ll be interesting to see how that plays out, as no doubt we’re over reliant on Giroud and it’ll be tough to ask him to carry our forward line for the whole campaign across three competitions. Nicklas Bendtner is the only other recognised fit striker in the squad right now, although Walcott’s return and with Lukas Podolski not a million miles away either there will be further options for Wenger to consider before the January window opens.
Defensively it was another very composed performance, with Southampton’s chances few and far between. Two good attempts in the first half were borne out of mistakes from Arteta as he sliced a clearance backwards off a corner and then gave the ball away in midfield, yet on both occasions Szczesny was on hand to keep the visitors at bay.
It’s been a long time since we’ve had a goalkeeper who has instilled such confidence in our play and Szczesny performing consistently and admirably is only a good thing for us not only in the here and now, but also for the future. Whilst I still think Hugo Lloris is the best ‘keeper in the League at present, Szczesny isn’t too far behind. And given the way he’s constantly improving and with age definitely on his side, it’s exciting to think where he can go in the future.
Things can change quickly with goalkeepers though and errors will inevitably happen, so it’ll be a big test of his maturity as much as anything to see how his development continues, but on current form we can count ourselves lucky that we have a talented ‘keeper like Szczesny on our books.
This victory over a side who were unbeaten in their previous eight League games was a great start to what is now an incredibly busy period leading up to Christmas, with weekend and midweek games coming thick and fast.
That starts with Marseille on Tuesday in our final home Champions League group game, and with a bit of luck we could qualify for the knockout stages that night if we beat the French visitors and Napoli and Dortmund draw in their fixture at the same time.
Things seldom work out as nicely as that though and I think we can expect the outcome of our group to go to the bitter end, and with our final game away at a difficult Napoli side it’s important that we pick up where we left off yesterday and take the points on Tuesday.
Until best time Matt.