I must admit I was very worried before the game yesterday. St. Mary’s has become a hard place to visit in recent seasons. Southampton have also been a problem at the Emirates – our two last League Cup exits are a testament to that.
However what we witnessed was a mature performance from an Arsenal side often found lacking in the last three months. The Gunners made sure they stayed in the game at half-time, before kicking on after the restart. A sensible approach well executed.
Let’s go over the interesting bits.
Cech bails us out. Again
The experienced shot-stopper played an enormous part in the parity after 45 minutes. He made two big saves: up close from Manolo Gabbiadini and from a distance strike courtesy of Nathan Redmond. Both stops were crucial, and spectacular.
That’s a third solid performance from Petr. He kept the score respectable at White Hart Lane, kept United at bay, and now helped fend off Southampton. If we make the top four, Cech will play a large part in that.
The back three certainly improved us defensively
My main worry immediately before the kick-off was Koscielny’s absence. Our captain couldn’t recover in time, and so Mustafi was handed a full game, his first since recovering. The German slotted in seamlessly, winning all of his tackles (5), four of the five aerial duels and clearing the ball nine times. One of his sliding tackles in the box was particularly tasty.
Holding and Monreal flanked the German, and both picked up where they left off against United. They were solid, alert and composed on the ball. It’ll be interesting to see who gives way once Kos recovers. I suspect it might be Gibbs, as Monreal has done stellar as a wing-back in contrast to his English counterpart.
It is clear though, that an extra central defender leaves us less exposed. Since Wenger switched to a back three we have conceded four goals in six games, winning five and losing just one. We might still be figuring out how to involve our strikers better, but our defence has become less rickety.
Alexis Sanchez reminds us of his quality
Before the goal I was watching Sanchez closely and was largely dissatisfied with his contribution. The Chilean lost the ball 20 times in total: 11 unsuccessful passes, and three of each: failed dribbles, loose touches and simply losing the ball. That is a lot, and confirms what we’ve known all along: Alexis is a turnover machine.
And then came his moment of magic. Alexis received the ball with his back to the goal, took a touch to set him on the way, dummied two defenders and then fired in a low shot with his weak foot. As I watched him celebrate the goal, a very simple thing occurred to me: barring maybe Santi Cazorla, I can’t think of a player in this squad with the guts and ability to pull it off.
This is why Alexis is so precious. He is unpredictable, and dangerous in and around the box. His technical quality is immense. The Chilean may be an average passer, he certainly overplays the ball often, with a simple pass on, but he is still a positive force.
By scoring yesterday Alexis has reached two important landmarks. Firstly, he has become the fifth Arsenal player to score 20+ league goals a season, after Ian Wright, Thierry Henry, Emmanuel Adebayor and Robin van Persie. Secondly, he has assisted or scored a goal in 70 of his total 100 appearance for Arsenal. Only Thierry Henry (81!) and Dennis Bergkamp (71) have bested this. I’m convinced was it not for Alexis’ relative drought in the second part of the season, he would be second after Henry.
This speaks volumes about his contribution. This makes it vital for us to keep him. I also think we should move him back up top for the remaining games, with either Welbeck or Iwobi taking up his current position. Sanchez becomes lethal when deployed as a centre-forward, while such a role reduces the relative impact of his mistakes.
An injured Ox is a worry
On 35 minutes we were forced into a substitution, Oxlade pulling his hamstring. He has been very good up until then, his dribbles causing havoc in the Saints’ defence.
Arsene was unable to pin down a date for Oxlade’s return, though he did say the injury is unlikely to require surgery. That is of little comfort though: even a grade one hamstring strain is two weeks out at least. Every time someone pulls a hamstring I think back to Podolski, who pulled a hammy in one of our CL qualifiers, and went on to miss four months despite the original prognosis of three weeks.
I would be very surprised to see Ox play another league game. There are only 10 days left in the campaign. So the question is: can he recover in time for Wembley? I sincerely hope he can, such is his importance to the side lately, but deep down I know we’ll be extremely lucky for that to happen.
The last word
The win allows us to leapfrog United and keep our top four hopes alive. We are three points behind City, and four behind Liverpool having played a game less than Klopp’s men. I think it is unlikely we can catch the former. City will need to drop points twice in three games, as their goal difference is vastly superior to ours. However they are playing Leicester, West Brom and Watford, only the latter away. I won’t hold my breath here.
Liverpool is a more realistic opponent we can overthrow. They are playing West Ham away and Boro at home, sides you would expect them to beat, especially given the former have been dreadful all season and the latter is already relegated. Compare it to our run of Stoke away, Sunderland at home and then another fixture at the Emirates vs Everton, and the chances look pretty slim.
But not totally extinguished, as they would have been, had we dropped points yesterday. If we manage to get three point at Stoke on Saturday, the hardest part of the run-in would be behind us and we will still be in with a chance.
For now though, we can rest for a few days, and just enjoy a win over a tricky opponent.
I’ll be back with you to cover the visit to Mordor.