James McNicholas is Bleacher Report's lead Arsenal correspondent and will be following the club from a London base throughout the 2013/14 season. Follow him on Twitter here.
Arsenal overcame an organised Southampton to secure a 2-0 victory and retain their place at the top of the Premier League. The Gunners’ superiority was best summed up by the contrasting fortunes of two Polish goalkeepers: Wojciech Szczesny and Artur Boruc.
Sczczesny ended the match not only with three points but also a morale-boosting clean sheet. Boruc, meanwhile, will be remembered as the man whose mistake changed the game.
In the early stages, it appeared fortune was favouring Boruc. Twice he was saved by the woodwork when Arsenal seemed certain to score. First, a Jack Wilshere lob drifted over his head but struck the inside of the post. Fans around the Emirates Stadium wondered aloud if the ball had crossed the line, but a fortunate bounce had narrowly preserved Boruc’s goal.
Minutes later, a cross from Mesut Ozil found Aaron Ramsey in space inside the Southampton penalty area. Ramsey made a mockery of the awkward angle, producing a glorious back-flick that had Boruc beaten. However, the ball struck the post once again.
Boruc’s luck was about to run out.
Receiving a simple back-pass, he dallied and compounded his hesitation by failing to control the ball. Smelling blood, the predatory Olivier Giroud pounced, robbing Boruc of the ball before poking it in to the abandoned net.
Arsene Wenger was generous to Boruc in his post-match interview with the BBC:
It [Boruc error] happens. Players are quick to close down. Maybe he was a bit too confident and Olivier Giroud did very well.
One senses Wenger simply didn't want to rub salt in to Boruc's gaping wounds.
Southampton have conceded just seven league goals this season. Were Boruc a more reliable goalkeeper, it would be five. Aside from today's calamitous mistake to gift Giroud the opening goal, earlier this month he somehow managed to concede to a long punt from a goalkeeper against Stoke. Mauricio Pochettino must be losing patience with his current No. 1.
Arsenal's fans, whose team have two Polish goalkeepers of their own in Szczesny and Lukasz Fabianski, ruthlessly mocked Boruc with chants of “Poland’s No. 3.”
At the other end of the pitch, Szczesny had a superb game. He recently ousted Boruc at international level, and on this evidence that decision is unlikely to be reversed any time soon.
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The mistake Boruc made is the sort of error an immature Szczesny was equally capable of making. However, against Southampton his footwork was excellent. He was commanding on crosses and produced one outstanding first-half save to keep the score at 1-0.
One week after he officially signed a new contract with the club, Szczesny’s performance was a statement of intent. Having fought back to reclaim the No. 1 spot at Arsenal, he won’t let go of it without a fight. Arsenal, similarly, are not yet ready to relinquish top spot in the table.
When Arsenal were awarded a late penalty kick, Boruc was afforded a chance for redemption. However, as Giroud stepped up to take, Boruc topped off a miserable day by diving the wrong way. It was 2-0 to Olivier Giroud in his personal duel with Boruc, and 2-0 to Arsenal.
In the battle of the Polish goalkeepers, this was Szczesny’s day.