Arsenal’s 22-match unbeaten run has come to an end at the hands of Southampton in their new manager Ralph Hasenhuttl’s first home match, with the Saints coming out 3-2 winners thanks to a late Charlie Austin winner, having lead twice previously.
Prior to this match, Arsenal held the both unusual and unwanted statistic of not having lead a match at half-time (level in 12 and behind in 4) – this wasn’t corrected in this match; a match that looked like a good opportunity to do so with Southampton starting the day in 19th place after 16 matches – thanks to a Danny Ings' inspired first half performance from the home team.
Unai Emery will be upset to have seen his team perform beneath the standard they have shown themselves capable over the past few months, but it was somewhat of a patched up team that began the game – Laurent Koscielny, who captained the team, made his return to the Premier League after 8 months out with injury, and was handed the arduous task of replacing both Shkrodan Mustafi and Sokratis Papastathopoulos, who picked up suspensions against Huddersfield last weekend. The Frenchman, was, understandably, a few yards off the pace.
Stephan Lichtsteiner, Hector Bellerin and Nacho Monreal also occupied defensive positions in what resembled a more traditional back-four than usual due to a thigh injury Sead Kolasinac picked up. In this instance, the formation was not a success, with 3 men in the middle – Granit Xhaka, Matteo Guendouzi and Lucas Torreira – offering support for the 3 who began up top, Alex Iwobi, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.
Southampton burst out the gates, after some pyrotechnics to welcome their new gaffer. Bernd Leno was called into action once or twice prior to the 20 minute mark.
When the 20th minute did artrive, however, he was beaten by a bullet header from a returning Danny Ings, who had missed all matches since the beginning of November with injury. What a bonus it was for his manager to have him available then, in this match, where he very much made his presence known.
Within 10 minutes, the away side were level, through the second headed goal of the game – this time from Mkhitaryan. The Armenian got into a great position to place a cushioned header past Alex McCarthy in the Saints goal, following up on a well-placed Monreal assist through a cross.
In the immediate aftermath of the goal, it looked like Arsenal were taking the bull by the horns with Aubameyang nearly netting following some fine play from Guendouzi and Torreira.
But it wasn’t to be – on 44 minutes, not long after being left in a heap following a Koscielny challenge, Ings made it two-one. The Englishman looped a header into the far corner just before the half time break, leaving Leno glued to his spot. It was a nice counter-attack from Southampton, where Arsenal were left wanting – the move finishing with Nathan Redmond swinging a ball into the perfect place for Ings to finish.
The Gunners were behind, but as mentioned, this isn’t uncommon this season – they’ve proven to be a second half team, especially with contributions being plentiful from the bench – and Arsenal had a very strong bench, which included Alexandre Lacazette, Aaron Ramsey and Mesut Ozil.
McCarthy – who was having a good game in the Southampton goal, to his credit – did very well to stop Aubameyang at the opening of the second half. He wasn’t as lucky just a few minutes later, however, when a deflection from a Mkhitaryan strike hit Vestergaard and wrong-footed the keeper.
It was back to two-a-piece, and to give special recognition to Mkhitaryan, who has surpassed the amount of goals he scored at United in 39 games – 5 – in the 25 games he has played for Arsenal, with this second goal of the game meaning he now has 6 in an Arsenal shirt.
Southampton mixed up their striking options, with Shane Long and Charlie Austin entering the fray. It was the latter who proved to be the difference on 85 minutes, with the former setting him up.
Long’s unselfish cross found his fellow-sub, and Austn made no mistake in scoring the matches 4th header. It ended up being nodded into an empty net that was scored into when Leno was caught out after appearing to misjudge the flight of the ball. 3-2 Saints.
The atmosphere in the final minutes of the match was palpable, but it was at Arsenal’s expense. At the close of the 5 minutes of injury time, Arsenal had not gotten much chances to level matters following the Austin goal. Full-time, 3-2, unbeaten run over.
In addition to Arsenal losing, Chelsea, who were just ahead of the Gunners on goal difference before kick-off, defeated Brighton to put 3 points between the teams, with Chelsea now in 4th on 37 and Arsenal in 5th on 34.
There’s no doubt about it that while this was a disappointing result for Arsenal, it was an exceptional, potentially season-defining result for Southampton. A loss today would have meant the Saints had just endured their worst ever Premier League run, and would remain in the relegation zone. As it transpired, that wasn’t to be, and now they sit in 17th on 12 points, and perhaps their season begins in earnest.
For Arsenal, a very, very interesting Christmas period awaits, beginning midweek with League Cup quarter final against Tottenham.
In the league, over the next two weeks, in the bumper schedule, Arsenal will play Burnley (H), Brighton (A), Liverpool (A) and Fulham (H). These fixtures will give Emery a better understanding of where his team stands in relation to others in the league, which means that the injuries and absentees that were present today may be coming at a very bad time. The defensive returnees will hopefully sure up the ship and help Arsenal return to winning ways sooner rather than later.