Arsenal arrived to St. Mary’s stadium Thursday after a chaotic week of injury updates, contract extensions, new injuries, FA bans, and press conferences, with a need to put all of that and their two previous losses aside. Dreams of the top 4 seemed further than ever, but as a young team, learning how to bounce back from a run of bad form in crucial. Good teams don’t lose back-to-back-to-back games and Arteta was determined to see his side win.
Going into the beginning of Project Restart’s matches, Arsenal fans were ecstatic at the prospect of having their entire team available for selection during a season where injuries have been difficult, start to finish. That optimism would evaporate in the first 5 minutes of their opening game and continue to deteriorate as injury problems immediately returned, leaving Arteta with a lack of options for lineup selections.
Arsenal were boosted with the return of Xhaka and Sokratis, which saw Arteta select this side:
Martinez, Bellerin, Mustafi, Holding, Tierney, Pepe, Ceballos, Xhaka, Saka, Nketiah, Aubameyang.
It wouldn’t be the dominant display that many may have been hoping for as Arsenal took the field against the 14th place Saints, but when you yourself are in 10th place on 0 goal differential, you are hardly a dominant team.
There were a few nice moments early on including a Kieran Tierney long ball that found Aubameyang in on goal. Aubameyang’s shot would clang off the crossbar, but the positive signs were there. Workrate was up, there were some better exchanges, and the press looked decent.
The pressure would pay off in the 20th minute as Arsenal forced a slow back pass to Southampton’s keeper Alex McCarthy whose attempt to play the ball was foiled by an onrushing Eddie Nketiah. Nketiah’s relentless pressure and willingness to rush the keeper would result in a steal and tap in goal. 1 - 0 Arsenal.
It wasn’t the prettiest game, but one may have felt comfortable in the lack of threat that Southampton presented. In the second half, the Saints were in control as they outshot the Gunners midway through the half 7-1, but they never seemed all that threatening with that offensive pressure. Emiliano Martinez made a great save against the substitution Shane Long, but otherwise there was not a lot of nerve-wracking, last ditch defending needed.
Arsenal would shut the door on a late comeback when Southampton’s defender brought down Aubameyang who was through on goal and saw red. The proceeding freekick was taken by Lacazette who put it directly off the defending wall. On the rebound, he would lace a volley on frame causing McCarthy to spill the shot right into the path of an onrushing Joe Willock to tuck away. 86th minute, 2 – 0 Arsenal.
Getting 3 points, without any more injuries, in any fashion, will have sufficed for Arsenal, but there were a few points of interest to discuss.
Fluid formations: 4-3-3, 5-2-3, 3-4-3
Going into the game, many would be curious who Arteta would look to select. He had limited options, but the combinations had not panned out versus Brighton, leaving many to wonder what adjustments would be made. The addition of Granit Xhaka clearly brought an element of maturity and composure throughout the game, but how would Arsenal line up with the squad selected.
There were minor hints of a 4-3-3 early with Saka, Xhaka, and Ceballos in the midfield, but it was quickly noticed that Saka was living in the left wing channel. He would come into the central area a little without the ball, or when it was on the far side of the field, but when it shifted over to the left, Bukayo was almost always heels to the chalk.
In the second half, we saw a complete shift to a 5-back system or a 3-back system with wingbacks, whichever you prefer, with no attempt to veil otherwise. Saka occupied the left channel, Tierney hugged in closer to Rob Holding as more of a central back, and Hector Bellerin played the right wingback next to Mustafi. This left Arsenal with Dani Ceballos and Granit Xhaka sitting on top of the backline making up the midfield.
It was a shift that Arsenal have not made under Arteta, but one that favors their intentions of operating down the wings to allow for clear overlaps of their wingers from the wingbacks. It didn’t produce the most offensive production, but Bukayo Saka down the left channel did have the most created chances in the game – something Arteta will have wanted when he drew up this wing-dominated plan. The defense and the midfield was present defensively, including Xhaka wrangling in Ceballos when he wandered out of position and demanding Aubameyang find a mark and get stuck in.
In the lead up to the game, Areta talked about Southampton and commented on their high level of pressure and aggression. By keeping the ball in the wings, Arsenal could prevent themselves from losing the ball in dangerous areas, while supplying their 3 most dangerous attackers with opportunities. It will be interesting to see if this is a tactic adopted when they play Sheffield United on Sunday in the FA Cup or when they come up against a better side, but a win is a win at this point.
Left side dominance, right side struggles
Since Arteta has taken over, the left side of the field has always seemed to thrive as a clear focal point in play. Aubameyang was designed to tuck in more central to allow for Saka to overlap him and whip in balls, while Aubameyang also looked to get in behind by splitting the opposition’s right back and central defender with his pace. People have always commented on the gap in quality it appears Arsenal have between the left side and the right side. By design or not, the right side has served more on the defensive end than offensive, as it often relies heavily on moments of individual brilliance from Pepe to create.
Yesterday, in a game that presented an opportunity for real balance as both channels were looked to for progressing the ball — the right side outright failed in comparison. Between Kieran Tierney combining with Saka and picking out Aubameyang, Saka putting on another comprehensive performance from the left and creating the most chances, and Aubameyang doing everything but finish, the left side looked like a completed puzzle.
On the right, Bellerin struggled to find any semblance of chemistry with Ceballos and Pepe resulting in a miserable 60% pass completion percentage and 2 dispossessions. Ceballos ended the game with 76% pass completion, which is a leap above Bellerin, but relatively low for a midfielder prized for their passing ability. Finally, Pepe was the first one subbed off after only managing 18 touches and 6 passes.
While Bellerin will justifiably be the focal point of the right side’s struggles, seeing all three of them struggle to produce much quality shows the lack of chemistry amongst them. When you compare to the left side, Saka, Tierney, and Aubameyang seem to be on the same wavelength every time. They have developed an identity and pattern of play allowing the three of them to combine with one another to progress up the pitch. There were multiple times the right side gave away the ball on a sloppy pass and hands were thrown in the air out of frustration as they expected one another to make different runs. Finetuning this aspect will be critical for Arteta and Arsenal as they seek to reach the next level of dynamic build up play.
Holding strong for second straight match
Rob Holding has been a player that has struggled to maintain a run of games. Whether due to injury, inconsistent play, or inconsistent play ended by injury – he has had a tough time retaining a spot and staking a claim. At 24, many consider these moments to be make or break for him if he wants to remain in north London.
In his first appearance he was solid for most the game, but in the end, Arsenal still conceded two and lost. Yesterday, in a game void of attacking prowess and left to be a bit cagey, Holding was a strong presence in clearing danger. With Emi Martinez in net, it was crucial Arsenal offered him a bit of confidence with a sound defensive display, and Holding’s 8 clearances, 4 duels won, 4 aerials won, 1 interception, and 84% pass completion will have provided just that.
Winning himself the Man of the Match award, getting Arsenal 3 points, and staking a claim on retaining that spot as newly signed David Luiz returns from suspension will have checked off all of Holding’s pre-match boxes.
It’s great to see him settling in confidently and comfortably, while not feeling as though he needs to force things to happen. In a defense that has made multiple errors and forced a lot out of the back instead of clearing their lines, his no-nonsense approach is a welcomed balance. Arteta will have an interesting choice on Sunday and the following week when Premier League action returns to the Emirates against Norwich.
There were a few other honorable mentions – Aubameyang’s defensive qualities and presence on both ends of the ball, Emi Martinez’s big save, solid performance, and quality distribution, as well as Xhaka’s clear influence in the side. We talked a little bit about Xhaka, but Arteta’s record with him in the side for the full match is impressive. In fact, he hasn’t lost a game where Xhaka plays the full 90 minutes. There is plenty to build from, plenty to improve on, but if there is one thing Arsenal can count on – its that wherever they play Saka, he is going to thrive.
Looking forward to the next match and the weekend. Sheffield United in the FA Cup and an opportunity for Arsenal to still get something from this season. Stay safe, stay healthy!
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