Arsenal vs. Southampton: Cazorla & Cech save Gunners from poor performance

That was a really narrow escape. The Gunners could have lost to Southampton in the Premier League but somehow they scored in stoppage time to win 2-1 on Saturday. Arsenal created very few clear-cut chances and could have fallen behind in the second half if Cech had not made a couple of fine saves. At this stage of the season, I guess it’s all about racking up points to build confidence for the next games.

arsenal-vs-southampton

Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com

The Gunners dominated possession but lacked urgency to put some well organized Saints under pressure. Southampton used a diamond midfield to disrupt Arsenal’s passing game with Romeu and Clasie respectively winning 5 and 4 tackles according to whoscored.com, more than any other player.

It didn’t help that Ozil had an off day. Wilshere would have been a useful alternative for through balls, but as you all know, he has been loaned out to Bournemouth for the entire season. Ramsey could have made the difference with his deep runs, but unfortunately he’s still recovering from a hamstring injury. In the end, Iwobi was the only attacking midfielder available on the bench.

I hope the staff will analyze the second half because Puel won the tactical battle even though Long couldn’t properly execute. Basically, the Saints played with 10 men behind the ball, waiting for counterattacking opportunities. They finished the game with 5 shots on target compared to just 2 for Arsenal. And Cech ended up pulling off 5 saves while Forster didn’t make any.

Mustafi growing into the game

Wenger made a big call on Saturday by starting both Mustafi and Perez. They enjoyed mixed fortunes in their Premier League debut. Obviously, striking an understanding with their teammates was an issue since they joined the club in the final days of the summer transfer window.

There were a couple of hesitations between Mustafi and Koscielny in the first half. Mustafi cheaply gave the ball away in the eighth minute but he somehow managed to grow into the game. He still lost two key duels in the second half. Long outjumped Mustafi in the 74th to head a cross over the bar. The Eire international then beat Mustafi to a rebound in the 83rd. You would expect a good defender to win those duels.

Koscielny stunned Arsenal fans by equalizing with an overhead kick in the 29th after the Southampton defense failed to clear a corner. Technically, it was a really pure kick. But at the end of the day, Koscielny is still a defender and you want him to protect our net first. He only won 37.5% of his duels according to the club’s website, the weakest percentage among all the defenders.

The France international made a poor decision in the 66th when Tadic fed Long with a backheel flick. Clean through on goal, Long sent his chip wide from eight yards. On that play, Koscielny should have kept an eye on Long instead of helping Mustafi press Tadic. Long read the play well by making a smart run between Koscielny and Monreal. I also thought Monreal did not react quickly enough to fix Koscielny’s mistake.

Handling Koscielny’s playing time

Then Koscielny was pulled out of position while intercepting a pass for Long in the 83rd. The ball fell to Davis, who found Ward-Prowse on the edge of the box. Ward-Prowse set up Hojbjerg for a long-range drive that Cech parried into the path of Long. The Eire international could only muster a tame effort that Cech saved with his foot. Koscielny made the first mistake on that play by giving the ball back to the Saints. Cazorla made the second mistake by not being aware of Hojbjerg’s presence behind him. When the Spaniard ran to make a block attempt, it was already too late. And Mustafi made the third mistake as he was caught ball-watching.

I guess the manager will need to rest Koscielny after international breaks. Koscielny has become the cornerstone of the France defense. So it was no surprise to see him play two games with his national team this month. However, I suspect Koscielny may struggle to recover from international duty at 31. And I believe he would have performed better against Southampton if he had not played with the France team.

Age is also a concern for Monreal who turned 30 this year. He hasn’t really had a convincing start to the season and his performance against the Saints raises more questions. Monreal made a reckless challenge on Redmond in the 16th, giving away a dangerous free kick that Tadic converted to give Southampton the lead. Cech initially diverted Tadic’s free kick onto the bar, but the ball bounced off Cech’s back and into the net. In the closing minutes, Monreal got away with a nasty foul on Long.

Aguero’s book

Up front, the Gunners struggled to find Perez. The Spaniard has more pace than Giroud but he’s not strong enough in the air to feast on high crosses or hold the ball up. Oxlade-Chamberlain in the 14th and Monreal in the 28th made low crosses for Perez but each time Van Dijk was able to clear the danger. Perez finally connected with a low cross from Ozil in the 57th but had his shot blocked.

Wenger sent on Giroud for Perez in the 62nd and the Frenchman’s physical presence helped him earn a penalty in injury time. It was a soft penalty but then Fonte gave the referee an excuse to blow the whistle by grabbing Giroud’s shirt. Perez will need time to adjust to a new league and develop a good understanding with his teammates. On paper, Giroud is better equipped than Perez to play as a lone striker against teams parking the bus. Maybe Perez could take a leaf out of Aguero’s book. The Argentine forward is arguably the best striker in the league despite his diminutive stature.

For the third straight game, Arsenal started with the Ox and Walcott on the wings. Their pace is a promising threat. However, they barely combined with the fullbacks and their lack of end product remains an issue. Walcott headed a Cazorla free kick over the bar in the 25th while the Ox had a shot deflected behind in the 42nd. Technically, the Ox is one of the most gifted players in the squad. Yet, he made two crosses that went nowhere. No wonder the manager often prefers to mix and match by starting a midfielder on one of the wings.

It’s all about the first touch

Like Koscielny, Ozil played in two games during the international break and his performance against Southampton was really average. Ozil overhit a long ball over the top for Walcott in the 38th and wasted two good situations with a poor first touch. Walcott picked out Ozil in the 55th but the Germany international lost possession before he could set up an unmarked Ox. Ozil then took a pass from Sanchez in the 65th but a bad control prevented him from feeding an unmarked Giroud.

Ozil finished the game with 7 turnovers according to whoscored.com, the most for any player. He also had 4 shot assists, including one that led to an off-target strike from Sanchez in the 68th. Tactically, Ozil dropped back a couple of times to help organize play. That’s not a good sign when he does that because Wenger wants him in the final third and not in the position of a deep-lying playmaker. That begs the question: Is the duo formed by Coquelin and Cazorla efficient enough in the build-up play? Or is the low number of scoring chances simply due to Ozil’s average performance?

Maybe Coquelin was a too defensive option for that match. He can be a fantastic destroyer, stopping a counterattack with a late challenge on Redmond in the 41st, but his limited passing skills can hurt the team in the final third, too. The Gunners were looking for a crack in the Southampton defense in the 37th when Coquelin received the ball on the edge of the box. He didn’t know what to do with it and lost possession. Xhaka would have added more creativity in midfield, but maybe the back four would have been more exposed, too.

Nerves of steel

With Ozil struggling to reach the heights of last season and Coquelin lacking playmaking skills, the onus was on Cazorla to create chances. Despite his defensive duties, Cazorla still managed to have 3 shot assists. He also made 4 successful dribbles, tied with Romeu for the most by any player. In the 85th, Cazorla made a cross for Giroud, whose header sailed wide. In stoppage time, the Spaniard showed nerves of steel to convert a penalty down the middle for the winning goal.

The Gunners are forced to play catch-up because of their poor start to the season. They are currently sixth in the Premier League, five points behind Manchester City. Rotation will play a key role in the next few weeks with games every three or four days. The victory over Southampton was just the first of seven games in a 23-day span. The next match is a Champions League encounter against Paris Saint-Germain on Tuesday. That game could determine which team will top Group A since Arsenal and PSG are the two strongest clubs on paper. If the Gunners win their group, they could have a decent draw for the last 16.

 

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