If Sunday’s Premier League showdown between Arsenal and Southampton at the Emirates Stadium was supposed to be a relatively meaningless match for the Gunners, nobody told the players on the pitch. Arsene Wenger may have rotated some of his most important players out of the team with an eye toward CSKA Moscow on Thursday, but the players who were available for the match found themselves stuck in a battle with a desperate foe. Southampton is on a mission to save their season from relegation, and while they may be the best positioned of the bottom 3 to pull themselves out of danger, they are still 3 points behind Crystal Palace with a game in hand. The Saints played like their season was on the line on Sunday, and the Gunners struggled at first to match their intensity. Wenger’s men would recover to take the 3-2 victory in front of a lukewarm home crowd, but the Saints made them fight every minute to take the points.
Premier League Debut For Reiss Nelson
One of the benefits of the Gunners’ focus on winning the Europa League this season is the opportunity it affords youngsters and fringe squad players an opportunity to gain experience at the highest level. On Sunday, with a Europa League quarterfinal match on Thursday for the starters, that honour finally fell to 18 year old Reiss Nelson. The young attacking midfielder generated a lot of buzz during last summer’s pre-season tour with his flash dribbling ability and improvisational style. He had seen a lot of time at the beginning of the season in the early stages of European competition and the League Cup, but Nelson had not featured with the first team since the end of February against FK Ostersunds.
Nelson learned very quickly that the Premier League was a whole new physical challenge when he was caught by studs with a Dusan Tadic tackle in the first minute of play. He went on to play 60 minutes, occasionally showing some of the copious ability at his disposal, but mostly jut trying to fit into the team. It was far from the revelatory debut that some fans, who had been calling on Arsene Wenger for months to give Nelson time, might have expected, but rumours have continued to circulate about the biggest club’s in Europe reportedly tracking his progress. He may not be the Premier League ready contributor with an all around skill set like his teammate Ainsley Maitland-Niles, but at 18 and already knocking on the door of the first team, he still has the potential to be the best of the bunch from the current crop of academy graduates.
Relegation Battlers Bring The Fight
Arsene Wenger my have been resting some of his key players for Sunday’s match with Southampton, but fans would have been uninterested in any excuses should the Gunners have dropped points on Sunday. The Saints came to the Emirates determined to take points in their quest to stave off relegation, and Mark Hughes’ side looked to have the initiative early. Southampton defender tenaciously as a unit in the first 20 minutes of the first half, the midfield stretching and contracting to continuously put pressure on the ball in their own half. For a while, it looked as though the gates would hold, as the Gunners maintained a massive possession advantage but saw little time in the dangerous areas where they could have an attempt on goal.
The Saints even managed to take the lead on one of their few promising attacks when Shane Long stepped in front of Shkodran Mustafi to redirect a cross home in the 17th minute. The goal seemed to wake the Arsenal attackers up, and it would be just 10 minutes later when Aubameyang equalised. Arsenal scored again in the 38th minute to take the lead into the half. However, Southampton refused to go down without a fight, weathering the Gunners’ attacking storm until Charlie Austin came on to provide a bit more attacking might to Hughes’ team. The Arsenal killer (4 goals in as many games against the North Londoners) wasted no time knotting the score and putting the initiative back in the hands of the hosts. Eventually, Danny Welbeck’s second goal proved decisive, giving the lead back to Arsenal and ensuring the Saints’ hard work and defensive solidarity would go unrewarded, but it was a hard fought match and their efforts deserve respect.
Danny Welbeck Offers His Critics A Message
Since the summer of 2017, perhaps no player in the Arsenal team has seen his standing in the first team put into doubt quite as much as Danny Welbeck. Last season, the Englishman returned from injury to be the only other true out and out striking option in the team behind Olivier Giroud, and he occasionally showed flashes of the potential that had teams take notice in his teenage years. This season saw first one, then another striker sign with the club for a fee north of £50 million, shoving Welbeck unceremoniously further down the pecking order. For fans, this was not a huge concern, as Welbeck has not been a consistent and clinical finisher since his arrival, but he never fails to put in a maximum effort performance when he is given the nod.
On Sunday, Welbeck was in fine form, starting on the left side of an attacking midfield that also included Alex Iwobi and Reiss Nelson. He was involved in all 3 Arsenal goals, including a brilliant flick over a defender to Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang for the Gunners’ first goal of the day. His first goal came from a driving run off the left flank that saw him muscle his way by 2 defenders before firing a shot that was deflected off a defender and over goalkeeper Alex McCarthy to give Arsenal the 2-1 lead. After Charlie Austin came on to knot the score, it again fell to Welbeck to make the difference. After fluffing his first attempt at a match winner from 5 yards out, he made no mistake just moments later when he nodded home Iwobi’s far-post cross to take the match and the points for the Gunners.
Old Habits Die Hard
Though Arsenal have been infinitely better at the back since the beginning of March and the end of their 4 match losing streak, but Sunday showed that the defence is still very much a work in progress. Shkodran Mustafi, who has seen doubt and errors creep back into his game in 2018 was roundly criticised for the first goal, in which he didn’t attack the ball and allowed Shane Long to beat him to the spot to score Southampton’s first goal. Though he recovered to have a decent match at the back, the moment was indicative of a larger trend with Mustafi this season, and sent many fans into an instant rage.
Like most defenders in the team, Mustafi can look like a world beater on his day. However, too often he seems to lose his head in tense situations, leading to silly mistakes and opponents’ goals. Hector Bellerin has also struggled at times this season, and Sunday he made way for Rob Holding to come into the game and Calum Chambers to shift into his right back role, which saw a noticeable improvement in the defence of crosses. Both players are clearly long-term solutions for the club, with Bellerin still considered one of the best young fullbacks in Europe. However, the progression of both players has been anything but straightforward over the last 18 months, and despite the victory, questions will be asked of both players. Luckily, the news wasn’t all bad for the defence, as Wenger’s decision to bring Holding into the game was a good one, and the young Englishman put on a classic no-nonsense performance in his 15 minute cameo.
Late Match Drama
The back and forth match took a late turn for the ugly in stoppage time when Jack Wilshere and Southampton’s Jack Stephens locked together in a tussle that turned ugly. Following a fight for possession, Wilshere kept hold of Stephens’ shirt, eventually tearing a section away from the side. In retaliation, Stephens through a punch at Wilshere’s head, sending him sprawling to the floor. At that point, referee Andre Marriner had had enough, and he marched over to the pair to deliver his verdict. It was a caution for Wilshere, and a straight red for Stephens, who had lashed out at the Arsenal man. After the commotion had seemed to die down, Mohammed Elneny stood over the Saints’ spot kick in an act of cheeky gamesmanship, only to find the frustrated Marriner call him over to receive his own marching orders with a red card.
Fighting of any kind has no place in the beautiful game, and Marriner was right to respond the way he did. However, fans cannot help but feel a little pleased at the fight their team showed in a match that for all practical purposes, carries no real meaning to the Gunners’ season. Jack Wilshere has been embroiled in a very public contract negotiation with the club, and some have labelled his actions on the pitch as a boiling over of those frustrations, but others claim it just proves how much he is willing to fight for the club. Whatever the reasoning may be, Wilshere was perhaps lucky to escape a red card and possible multiple match ban for his involvement in the extracurricular activity.