In the first half, Arsenal were almost unrecognisable from the side who have stormed to the top of the Premier League table. The Gunners were as poor as Southampton were excellent. If an alien had landed at the St. Mary’s Stadium and told he was watching England’s best football team, he would have assumed it was the home side.
Arsenal came into the game with an extra day of rest under their belts, yet Southampton won almost every challenge. Arsene Wenger’s team were pegged in their own half, with a huge gulf between the defensive midfield pair of Mathieu Flamini and Mikel Arteta and the two attacking outlets, Mesut Ozil and Olivier Giroud.
Arsenal were missing the injured midfield trio of Jack Wilshere, Aaron Ramsey and Tomas Rosicky. Without them, there was a lack of fluency to the Gunners’ play. Their passing was disjointed and their shape disconnected.
When Arsenal went in at half-time just one goal down, they were probably relieved. Had Southampton been more clinical, the game could have been over. The Gunners had been consummately outfought and outplayed.
However, their response at the start of the second half was fantastic. Within seven minutes of the restart, Arsenal had turned the game entirely on its head. Goals from Giroud and Santi Cazorla transformed both the match and the mood.
This, it seemed, was the response of champions elect. The watching Gunners fans roared with pride, and on the sidelines Wenger beamed with the satisfaction of a fan, as he watched his half-time talk dramatically put in to action.
That smile soon turned to a grimace. Within moments of going ahead, Arsenal had conceded an equaliser. Arsenal’s equaliser had been borne of some muscular play down the right from Bacary Sagna. However, on this occasion Sagna was outmuscled by Jay Rodriguez, who crossed for Adam Lallana to score.
Conceding so soon after taking the lead is a worrying sign for Wenger. It’s indicative of a lack of concentration and perhaps even an encroaching element of hubris.
Nevertheless, in this topsy-turvy game, Arsenal came again. Ozil, who seemed to relish the particular challenge provided by this tempestuous game, skipped through the defence only to see his goal-bound effort deflect on to the crossbar.
If any team was going to find a winner, it looked likely to be Arsenal. However, Wenger’s team undid their chances of securing three points with another moment of madness. A two-footed lunge saw Flamini dismissed and Arsenal back under the cosh. In the end, Arsenal had to rely upon the athleticism of Wojciech Szczesny to escape with a draw.
Wenger thinks Flamini red was "harsh" unless all two-footed tackles are reds. Which, pretty much, they are— Matt Dickinson (@DickinsonTimes) January 28, 2014
Arsenal leave St. Mary’s Stadium feeling less than satisfied. For seven minutes, they performed like champions. However, for long periods they struggled. Southampton are a good team, but Arsenal will face better sides in the coming months.
Gunners fans will hope the negative elements of this performance were an isolated aberration.