Arsenal’s unbeaten run came to an end at the St. Mary’s Stadium as their defensive frailties finally caught up with them. To make matters worse, more defenders went off injured and Arsenal’s rival for the Top 4 have all gained maximum points. Arsenal trail Chelsea by three points in fifth place.
Here are 5 things we observed in the game against Southampton.
The paucity of options at the back meant that Emery set up a three man central defensive line with a rusty Koscielny being flanked by makeshift centre backs – Lichtsteiner and Xhaka. Koscielny looked off the pace on a few occasions and he was culpable for the first and third goal. He could have been better positioned to meet the crosses before they reached Ings and Austin respectively.
However, it is harsh to put all the blame on him as he’s been rushed back to play after 6 months out with a major Achilles injury. With injuries and suspensions decimating the defence, the captain will be required to get to grips with his form double quick time with a whole slew of matches coming up.
Such demands and a packed fixture list are worrying as it might push Koscielny into the injury “red zone” faster than the club would like.
Things got from bad to worse when Bellerin hobbled off at half time and Lichtsteiner went off injured towards the end of the game. Oh, and Kolasinac sat out the game due to a thigh problem. It’s going to be a rough December.
Missing Fluency and Thrust in Midfield
Just like in the game against Huddersfield, Arsenal struggled for fluency and penetration in the first half. The reason for this, however, is slightly different from the previous league match.
With the 3-4-3, Emery’s gameplan was to focus play through the flanks to create overloads via the wing backs and the interior attacking midfielders (Iwobi and Mkhitaryan) but the players seemed to be on a different wavelength when it came to their movement and combination play. There were good moments that were borne out of those overloads (the first goal and Bellerin’s cross for Aubameyang that was snuffed out just before his tap in) but the team struggled to move the ball fast enough.
Perhaps it was fatigue or the team missing Xhaka’s distribution from midfield. Emery needs to come up with new solutions to provide a spark through December. My eyes are on the well-rested legs of Ozil and Ramsey push the team across the line when the going gets tough.
Mkhitaryan’s Graft A Positive
As one of the top earners at the club, Mkhitaryan’s performances has been relatively poor for Arsenal. I’ve spoken often about the need for him to step up as one of the team’s chief playmakers further up the field to compensate for Ozil’s and Ramsey’s lack of contribution in Emery’s system this season.
Against Southampton, he was one of the bright sparks for the team. His header and impeccable timing to receive the cross from Monreal was a much needed boost when Arsenal went a goal down. While he was lucky with the deflection on the second goal, it was a deserved goal for a player who put in a great shift to press the opponents relentlessly and get involved in the build up for some of Arsenal’s better moves.
Aubameyang’s All Round Play Getting Better
Another rare positive in this game was Aubameyang’s improvement in his all-round play. The match against Spurs proved that Aubameyang was more than just a penalty box poacher. He showed fantastic ability to press intelligently and hold up the ball.
Against Southampton, he used the ball efficiently by opening up the game through dribbling into half spaces and layoffs for teammates to bring them into play. His back heel to set up Iwobi in a crowded penalty box also showed good vision and composure under pressure.
His predatory prowess was still evident on two occasions when he was close to scoring a tap in if not for last ditch tackles from the Southampton defenders. If he keeps playing like this, we should expect him to be at the top of the goalscoring charts by the end of the season.
Does Arsenal Need Cech?
Leno has shown that his judgement isn’t the best when it comes to crosses. All three goals conceded were headers created from wide which perhaps showed that Southampton were looking to test him in those situations.
The third goal was a combination of defensive mistakes throughout the team but it could have been averted if he was better positioned to palm the ball away from Austin. This was not the first time in the game (or the season) where he hasn’t been able to reach the ball when defending the cross.
David de Gea faced similar issues in his first season at United but was given leeway to make mistakes while acclimatizing to the Premier League. Would Emery take a similar risk if he sees Leno as his long-term solution? Arsenal need to finish the season in the top four and Emery may not be able to afford such mistakes with crucial short-term targets. Could he revert to Cech in goal who has a superior command of the box?
My guess would be that Leno keeps his place but with a thinning backline, having a leader like Cech in goal might be a big help to that makeshift defence.