Result: Southampton 0-2 Arsenal
Competition: Premier League
Date: 25 June 2020
Venue: St Mary’s
Starting lineup: Martinez, Bellerin, Tierney, Holding, Mustafi, Xhaka, Ceballos, Saka, Pepe, Aubameyang, Nketiah
Subs: Macey, Sokratis, Kolasinac, Maitland-Niles, Willock, M.Smith, Nelson, Ozil, Lacazette
Academy graduates Eddie Nketiah and Joe Willock got the goals as Arsenal beat Southampton 2-0 to record a first win following football’s restart after the Covid-19 lockdown.
Under pressure following two defeats in a row, the Gunners delivered a professional performance at St Mary’s that restores hope of securing qualification to Europe.
Nketiah took advantage of a goalkeeping howler to break the deadlock midway through the first half and we took advantage of Jack Stephens’ red card to kill the game in the closing stages; substitute Willock tapping home on the rebound.
Having both been ruled out for a couple of weeks as recently as Friday, the return of Granit Xhaka and Sokratis to the squad was a welcome surprise given our depleted numbers. The Swiss slipped straight back into the centre of midfield, while the Greek took a place on the bench. In the absence of Bernd Leno, Emi Martinez started his first Premier League game of the season, Kieran Tierney took over from Sead Kolasinac at left-back and Eddie Nketiah came in for Alex Lacazette. Academy graduate Matt Smith was amongst the nine subs, which also included Mesut Ozil and Matt Macey.
In baking hot conditions with half the pitch bathed in sunshine and the other in shade, it was the home side who made the quicker start. Having conceded in the 95th minute on the south coast on Saturday, we might have gone behind inside a minute here. Thankfully, Danny Ings couldn’t connect properly with a cross that had us scrambling in our own box.
It became apparent pretty early on that we were playing a fluid formation at the back with Tierney tucking in alongside Holding and Mustafi and Saka dropping to left-back to create a five-man defence out of the ball.
In possession, Saka hugged the left touchline looking to play give and gos and work his way behind the Southampton defence. It nearly paid dividends on 8 minutes when he darted behind the defence to collect a Saka pass and laid it off for Nketiah to tap home. Unfortunately, he’d time his run wrong and was a yard or so offside.
Our best chances certainly came down the left side. Aubameyang really should have put us in front when he raced onto a long ball from Tierney. One-on-one with keeper McCarthy, he seemed destined to score but cannoned his effort on the angle off the bar.
Aside from a clumsy challenge by Mustafi on Ings (the German went into the book), a string of poor passes by Bellerin and an injury scare to Saka who went down following a crunching challenge by Højbjerg, there wasn’t too much to get the pulses of Arsenal fans racing.
That changed on 21 minutes courtesy of Nketiah. The England under-21 international, whose movement had been sharp from the off, pounced on a terrible pass by keeper McCarthy and had the simple task of rolling the ball into an empty net as his reward. They say you make your own luck; he certainly did that. (1-0)
The instructions from the boss at the drinks break must have been to retain possession and make Southampton chase the ball in the heat. When spaces appeared we then tried to break on the counter.
Just before the break, we had an amazing chance to double the lead. Pepe freed Nketiah in the box but he choked and awkwardly prodded the ball out of play when a little pass to Aubameyang would have resulted in a free shot on goal. Would we live to regret it? That was the question going into half time.
An early Ward-Prowse shot from the edge of the box signalled Southampton’s intent to push for an equaliser but we did pretty well keeping them at arm’s length.
Had Aubameyang been in a more selfish mood we might even have doubled our lead. A brilliant kick by Martinez found the striker in space and within a touch he was in the Saints box. Rather than try and finish himself, he looked to tee up Nketiah only for a last-ditch challenge by Bednarek to force the ball for a corner. Martinez put his head in his hands; he knew we’d blown a great chance.
Another break, which saw us work the ball across the pitch at speed, ended with a Bellerin drive being blocked at close quarters. It was our last effort for quite some time. Hassenhutl’s men penned us in and we struggled for fluidity. Changes in personnel and another drinks break added to the stop-start nature of the match. Willock replaced Pepe, who struggled to make an impact, and Kolasinac came on for Tierney who was struggling with cramp. Alex Lacazette and Ainsley Maitland-Niles joined them soon after. Off went goalscorer Nketiah and Dani Ceballos.
In between, there was a scare when Redmond hit a rasping right foot effort that flashed into the side netting. Ings also stung Martinez’s palms on 78 minutes and the Argentine did brilliantly to pounce on the loose ball.
Hanging on for a 1-0 win didn’t seem like a particularly sensible move given our track record this season, so a red card for Southampton was certainly timely.
With six minutes remaining, Aubameyang chased down a pass aimed at Jack Stephens and was taken out by the defender on the edge of the Saints box. Referee Graham Scott had no qualms reaching for his pocket. Things got even better from the resulting free-kick. Lacazette tried his luck, found the wall, hammered the rebound at McCarthy who fumbled into Wilock’s path and the 20-year-old tucked home. (2-0)
That was job done. A win made at Hale End and one that was much needed after our recent troubles. While we’re still stuck in mid-table, ninth at the time of writing, six points separate us from the five teams above.