Arsenal vs. Southampton: Capitalizing on two defensive blunders

   Could anybody believe this summer that the Gunners would ride the impressive form of Giroud and Ramsey to make an unlikely title bid? Yet, that’s pretty much the narrative of this first half of the season. The French striker scored twice Saturday to lead Arsenal to a 2-0 win over Southampton in the Premier League.

   Last season, Walcott, Cazorla and Podolski scored respectively 14, 12 and 11 goals to help the Gunners finish fourth. The trio has missed a lot of games this season because of injuries, combining only for three goals. That means some players had to step up and that’s what Giroud and Ramsey did by netting 13 of Arsenal’s 24 goals. Their impact on the team is tremendous as they also have four assists each. It was therefore no surprise on Saturday to see Ramsey play in a central position while Ozil shifted to the right wing.

   Initially, Wenger played Ramsey on the wing to accommodate Ozil. But Ramsey wins more tackles and can make deep runs from midfield while the Germany playmaker is not strong in challenges. Ozil is no Zidane yet. His influence on his team’s passing game declines when he’s man-marked. That was not the case with Zidane. So it made sense for Wenger to help Ozil escape marking by moving him to the wing like he did with Cazorla.

   Despite what the score says, the margin between Southampton and Arsenal was very thin. Small details can make the difference in the big games. A corner cost Arsenal the match at Old Trafford. On Saturday, Southampton was punished for two defensive blunders. A draw would not have been a scandal. Both teams evenly shared ball possession and had four shots on target. The difference was that the Saints received three yellow cards while the Gunners got none, a sign that Arsenal was the more threatening team.

   In a tight match with very few clear-cut chances, no team managed to have a player clean through on goal. Southampton showed why it climbed to third place and had the tightest defense in the Premier League by pressing high up the pitch and allowing the Gunners very little time on the ball. Arsenal was forced to make a lot of back passes to Szczesny whose distribution was surprisingly good. With Southampton’s high defensive line, maybe the Gunners had room to play the ball behind the back four. Wenger did not choose that option as neither Walcott nor Gnabry started the match.

   Giroud’s work ethic paid off in the 22nd minute as he stole the ball from Southampton goalkeeper Boruc to flick into an empty net. For a goalkeeper, attempting to dribble past an opponent is very risky. But trying it three times in the same play is just foolish. The Gunners pushed for a second goal after halftime. Ozil cut inside a defender in the 63rd but could only shoot straight at Boruc from a tight angle. Wilshere then burst forward in the 70th but his header off a Sagna cross lacked power to beat Boruc. It took a foul from Fonte to seal the win. The Southampton defender pulled Mertesacker’s jersey to prevent him from heading a corner in the 85th. Giroud converted the subsequent penalty by sending Boruc the wrong way.

   Ramsey did not score but helped create two chances in the first half. He made an interception in the 11th and his chipped pass for Giroud was poorly cleared by the Saints. The ball fell to Wilshere, whose cross-shot hit the post. In the 18th, Ramsey made a run to create space on the right wing for Ozil, who found the Wales midfielder with a low cross. Unfortunately, Ramsey’s backheel flick struck the post.  

   On the bright side, Walcott made his return from an abdominal injury, replacing Cazorla in the 70th. Obviously, the England winger still lacks match fitness. When Wilshere initiated a counterattack in the 83rd, Walcott missed the target. Now, the bad news is that Arteta picked up an injury in the 73rd. The Spaniard provided stability in midfield with his smart positional play, but his lack of pace proved a weakness a couple of times. Rodriguez skipped past Arteta to lead a fast break in the 14th before losing possession to Mertesacker.

   After using up a lot of energy to open the scoring, the Gunners sat back a bit and gave Southampton the opportunity to level. Defending set pieces is still an issue. Fonte and Rodriguez won headers at the near post to redirect corners in the 27th. Fortunately, no Saint at the far post was able to claim the ball. Then Giroud headed out a free kick from Ward-Prowse in the 32nd, but Arteta’s miscued clearance fell into the path of Lallana, whose half-volley from 17 yards was tipped over the bar by Szczesny. From the following corner, Hooiveld’s header deflected off Koscielny’s back.

   The only time when Arsenal’s defending was really lax occurred in the 39th. Ward-Prowse made a cross from our left flank for Rodriguez, who chested the ball down to fire a volley that Szczesny parried. Both Rodriguez and Ward-Prowse had too much space on that play. The Gunners had pretty much the second half under control. Long-range attempts from Lallana in the 52nd and Osvaldo in the 75th were easy saves for Szczesny. Arteta was late in the 52nd to give some protection to the centerbacks, which explains why Koscielny was then late for the block on Lallana. However, Wilshere’s running in the 75th is a good example of how much Arsenal’s defensive discipline has improved. Wilshere was behind Osvaldo at the start of the play but still kept tracking back. The Italy forward dribbled past Mertesacker but could only shoot straight at Szczesny from 25 yards under Wilshere’s pressure.

   Saturday’s match was just the first of seven fixtures in a 22-day span. Wenger will need rotation to avoid injuries and fatigue. The four-point lead atop the Premier League gives him enough maneuvering room to rest some key players. Let’s remember Arsenal poorly concluded similar spans this season. The Gunners drew 1-1 with West Bromwich in October and lost 1-0 at Old Trafford two weeks ago. The match at the Etihad Stadium on Dec. 14 will be their last one before they can enjoy an eight-day break. That game could prove decisive in the title race.

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Photo credit: The Associated Press

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