After losing at Old Trafford in their last Premier League outing, Arsenal needed a response to reassert their credentials as title challengers. Thanks to a dogged and determined display, they did just that.
Prior to the match, Arsene Wenger would have been cursing the fixture list that his team found themselves up against Mauricio Pochettino’s Southampton, flying high in the table and collecting plenty of plaudits and points along the way.
A year ago, this was a routine home win for the Gunners. Then, a Southampton team managed by Nigel Adkins shipped six goals and looked doomed for relegation. Even Gervinho belittled them with a brace.
However, since then, the South-Coast side have been radically transformed. Now, drilled by the impressive Pochettino, they have their eyes on Europe. Pochettino’s team have already won at Liverpool and drawn an Manchester United in a promising campaign.
The Argentine spent much of the build-up to the game lavishing praise on the legacy Arsene Wenger has built at Arsenal. However, there is much for Wenger to admire about Pochettino’s Southampton. He has quickly created a distinct football culture, harnessing the attacking talents of the likes of Lallana and Lambert, and introducing a relentless pressing game.
Wenger might have feared the worst. Last season, Arsenal were beaten at home by a Swansea team who employed a similar combination of polished passing and persistent pressure. With Tomas Rosicky not fit enough to start and Mathieu Flamini suspended, Arsenal were arguably missing the two midfield players best suited to cope with the Saint’s high-tempo style.
However, the Gunners were determined to show that they were up to the test.
Giving Southampton’s proficiency at pressing, there was a certain irony about the way Arsenal grabbed the opening goal. When Artur Boruc collected a simple back-pass, no danger was apparent. However, the industry of Olivier Giroud allowed Arsenal to create a chance out of nothing.
Giroud hassled Boruc, enforcing an effort in the Polish goalkeeper’s footwork before pick-pocketing the ball and poking home in to the unguarded goal. Boruc was embarrassed; Giroud elated.
Southampton have only conceded seven league goals this season. One of those was a freak effort from Asmir Begovic where the ball was caught by the wing and Boruc was caught out of position. Were it not for the Pole’s errors, Southampton’s defensive record would be even meaner.
Nevertheless, Giroud was a grateful beneficiary.
The brace put a positive end on to a mixed week for the forward. He was dropped for France’s decisive play-off against the Ukraine, but was comforted by the consolation of World Cup qualification. Away from the pitch, he lost his grandfather. After nicking the opener, he pointed to the sky in a moment of poignant reflection.
He also stepped up to stroke home the penalty that sealed the game, grabbing the ball as soon as the referee blew the whistle. That self-assurance is a far cry from the Giroud of last season. Almost exactly a year ago, Giroud opted not to take a last-minute penalty when on a hattrick against Fulham. Arteta subsequently missed, and Giroud was roundly criticised.
Now, however, his confidence is on a high. In 19 games this season he has already scored 10 goals and made five assists. He has become integral to Arsenal’s play.
His defensive work is superb. Giroud is vital when it comes to defending set-pieces, and as the opening goal shows is excellent at closing down defenders – he almost bought himself a goal from a similar situation against Liverpool.
However, you can’t keep up those effort levels for 90 minutes. The work that Giroud did in the 22nd minute to win the opening goal is impossible in the latter stages of a draining game. Subsequently, Southampton’s centre-backs were allowed more and more time on the ball, and the Saints grew in to the game.
That’s why Arsenal need to sign a striker in January: they need someone who can come on for the last twenty minutes and replicate Giroud’s presence in both boxes. He can’t be expected to continue like this without incurring physical repercussions.
This was a really good win for Arsenal against a very solid team. The Gunners avoided the banana skin, but Boruc didn’t. Roll on the next game.