As a result that would only surprise those who believe football involves throwing a brown pointy ball, Arsenal barely scraped a 1-1 draw against a resolute Southampton side who will feel hard done by. With Chelsea dropping points the day earlier, this was a match for Arsenal to climb the table into the Champions League places. Poor defending and miscommunication allowed Charlie Austin to score an easy goal in the third minute and if not for Petr Cech, Arsenal could have conceded more. Even with 66.8% possession overall, Arsenal could only muster six shot on goal, the epitome of sterile possession. Alexis Sanchez, who in the last two games has given the ball away 66 times, lifted a pass that Giroud headed home to claim a point that feels unjustly deserved.
Arsenal (3-4-3): Cech // Monreal – Mertesacker (Welbeck, 64’) – Koscielny // Kolasinac – Xhaka (Wilshere, 69’) – Ramsey – Bellerin // Sanchez – Ozil – Lacazette (Giroud, 72’)
Southampton (4-2-3-1): Forster // Bertrand – van Dijk – Yoshida – Stephens // Hojbjerg – Romeu // Redmond (Boufal, 74’) – Tadic (Davis, 88’) – Ward-Prowse // Austin (Gabbiadini, 86’)
Arsenal Possession Structure vs. Southampton Press
On paper as a traditional 4-2-3-1, Pellegrino structured his sides pressing system to revolve around denying easy entry into the central spaces. This involved tasking Tadic and Redmond to push up with Austin, the lone striker, while Ward-Prowse would sit narrower and act as the right-sided central midfielder in Arsenal’s early buildup. This narrow pressing system with Austin shadow covering Xhaka proved effective in forcing Arsenal to play out wide to the wing backs. As soon as they received the ball, their positional counterpart would press while the ball-side winger and central midfielder sat narrower to restrict their passing options. Southampton, for most of the game, kept their defensive shape well due to Arsenal’s sloth-like possessional play.
Southampton’s pressing structure not only limited the angles in which Arsenal could move forward but provided them with a platform in which to counterattack. With Tadic and Redmond sitting further forward when in their defensive phase, they were able to use their speed to exploit the unoccupied flanks where the wing backs usually sit. Since Arsenal are usually aggressive in their attacking positioning – Ramsey acts as an auxiliary advanced midfielder while the wing backs are wingers – it left Koscielny and Monreal to cover far too much space than they are able to at 32- and 31-years-old, respectively. Xhaka is unable to provide that much cover, and that Wenger thinks he can is a sad indictment of where Arsenal’s midfield is. Austin’s clever goal in the third minute sums up perfectly Arsenal’s overall lethargy at Saint Mary’s. The burly forward burst through the lines all the while outpacing four Arsenal players who failed to realise the danger surrounding them.
Arsenal tried their usual methods for vertical progression but Pellegrino’s men had done their homework. Koscielny and Monreal attempted vertical passes through the half-spaces into the feet of the wide forwards but the opposing fullbacks, who man-marked them closely, restricted their movement. When they were able to get into the final third, they struggled to penetrate Southampton’s narrow 5-4-1 and were left to recycle possession from flank to flank to find any angle to attack only to move the ball too slowly to exploit what gaps may pop up. Arsenal enjoyed their more dangerous chances when they were able to counterattack a Southampton side that was sometimes too eager to throw men forward. Lacazette had several half-chances originating from incisive ball movement and quick short passes in central spaces that should have found the back of the net. Defensive stability then a rapid counterattack has proven useful for Arsenal this season and should be a strategy more often deployed if only the first part was easily achievable.
Down by one goal and looking listless for most of the game, Wenger made three substitutions to attempt a quick fix and two glaring problems: a lack of presence in the final third and penetration from the midfield. With Ramsey sitting forward when Arsenal was deep in possession, they lacked any real threat from deep. Bringing on Wilshere for Xhaka tried to fix the issue and at times it did, though at the expense of Ramsey’s deep channel runs.
Adding Giroud to the forward line makes sense if Arsenal increased the rate of crosses when he entered the pitch. Too often, though, Arsenal reverted to sideways passes that lacked real imagination. Giroud did not make matters any better with his constant attempt at wall passes. Overall, Arsenal simply looked like typical Arsenal wherein they lacked intent and a sense of purpose in the final third. Just look that the photo above. How can you make a positive pass when there’s a lack of movement in front of you? With the trend of the game overall, Arsenal should feel lucky to have scored an equaliser and come away with a point. Considering the results around them, they desperately needed more.