Danny Welbeck netted a brace on his 200th league appearance while teenage wonderkid Reiss Nelson made his first Premier League start as Arsenal earned all three points against relegation-threatened Southampton – but certainly made things hard for themselves on a rainy, Sunday afternoon at the Emirates.
Most of the pre-match buzz centred around Reiss Nelson, who at 18, is Arsenal’s most highly-rated youngster coming through the Academy and has enjoyed success with both club and country at youth level.
It was his first Premier League start in somewhat of a weakened Arsenal side fielded by Arsene Wenger, ahead of Thursday’s return leg against CSKA Moscow in Russia – they were comfortable 4-1 winners earlier in the week.
Southampton, who currently occupy the final relegation place in 18th, are three points behind Crystal Palace and further adrift from rivals including Huddersfield, Swansea (both four pts) and West Ham (five). So with that in mind, Mark Hughes would’ve taken some credit from the Gunners’ starting eleven – even if they did leave a few big guns on the substitutes’ bench…
Saints come close early on..
Arsenal started in typical Arsenal fashion, slow and sloppy. Hector Bellerín and Calum Chambers were both forced into some last-ditch defending to stop the visitors from racing into a two-goal advantage after just ten minutes.
First, Bellerín made an important goal-line clearance after James Ward-Prowse was threaded through on-goal and had the beating of Petr Cech inside the box. Then, the Saints were almost ahead again after a simple long ball clearly caused plenty of unrest among Arsenal’s backline, Shane Long the beneficiary if not for Chambers’ physical approach.
Southampton started brightly and deserved a goal for their troubles. So naturally, after 16 minutes, that’s precisely what they got – albeit a poor goal once again to concede from Arsenal’s perspective.
Another forgettable goal conceded by Gunners
Cedric did well to keep possession near the byline and curl a teasing ball goalwards. Lack of communication between Cech and Shkodran Mustafi saw Long slip in-behind the German centre-back to tap home from close-range, leaving the pair to argue furiously in the aftermath.
It was annoying to see, as you’d naturally expect better from Premier League players. But then again if you’ve watched Arsenal enough over the past few seasons, you’d know that nothing is new – especially the way they concede goals.
Thankfully for the hosts, they responded well to going a goal behind. After some good patient build-up play, Welbeck’s fantastic flick saw the ball fall nicely for Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who evaded his marker quickly before toe-poking beyond goalkeeper Alex McCarthy.
Hosts respond well and with purpose
1-1, they were not done there. Nelson was easy on the eye in the attacking third and combined well with Aubameyang before Pierre attempted to return the favour for Welbeck just a minute afterwards. His attempted through ball had too much pace on it, allowing McCarthy to smother the danger.
However, it didn’t take long for Welbeck to get himself on the scoresheet. His industrious run from the halfway line was rewarded after Alex Iwobi’s excellent pass into his feet allowed the Englishman to dart goalwards, ride a few challenges before firing.
His effort took a deflection off Maya Yoshida before swerving low into the bottom corner. 2-1, Arsenal were ahead going into the interval but Southampton knew the game was still up for grabs.
It wouldn’t have been, if not for an excellent double save by McCarthy at the start of the second-half. First, he thwarted Aubameyang – before doing even better to dive low and save Xhaka’s well-struck effort.
Hughes’ side certainly not out of it…
Then, roles were reversed. Arsenal found themselves under the kosh once more, as Cech was forced into action to deny Pierre-Emile Højbjerg and Wesley Hoedt in particular with Mark Hughes’ side driving forward with increasing intensity.
Substitutions were made by both sides with time ticking over and the score still finely poised at 2-1. Yoshida was replaced by Charlie Austin in an attacking move by Hughes and of course, the forward made an instant impact just two minutes later.
The hosts were slow to exit their box after Chambers partially cleared the danger, but Cedric was instrumental once more in punishing their static defence. He accelerated beyond his marker in the area, before fizzing a low ball across the box for Austin to slot home from just six yards out.
He wheeled away to celebrate in jubilation and unsurprisingly so, having netted his fourth goal in as many games against the Gunners.
Welbeck should’ve added another goal shortly afterwards, but missed the target completely with the goal gaping at his mercy.
Iwobi did brilliantly to skip past Højbjerg before whipping an inviting delivery towards the back post for Jack Wilshere to flick back goalwards. He did precisely that, but Danny didn’t catch the ball cleanly and fired over the crossbar.
His frustrations were short-lived though, as he atoned for his miss with a headed finish just minutes later. Iwobi did well once more to evade a couple of Southampton players on the edge of the box, before dinking another ball towards the back post – he made no mistake this time, bullying both Cedric and Stephens before heading downward beyond a helpless McCarthy.
Arsenal were clearly trying to slow the game down in the latter minutes, eager to hold on for all three points having already conceded two cheap goals, but they persisted to squander possession needlessly.
The last ten minutes plus stoppage time was wild, to say the least. Dusan Tadic, who faded as Arsenal got in-front, came close with a half-volley which Cech had to tip over the crossbar.
Then, Rob Holding – on as a sub for Bellerín – made a superb sliding block to deny substitute Josh Sims’ attempt on goal.
Frenetic finish as red mist descends
In stoppage time, two players saw red as tempers flared. Wilshere, who had lost possession in midfield and ran eagerly to atone for his mistake, tugged at the shirt of centre-back Jack Stephens.
He reacted badly and took a swing at Jack, who fell to ground in a heap before rushing to square up to the defender.
Referee Andre Marriner sent Stephens off for violent conduct, gave Wilshere a yellow card following the initial foul before Mohamed Elneny was also given his marching orders for an off-the-ball incident before Southampton’s free-kick was taken.
Replays showed that the Egyptian midfielder had pushed one of the Southampton players and Marriner, eager to keep control, gave him a straight red card. Arguably soft, it’s likely the Gunners will appeal the decision.
Stoppage time ticked on, but Arsenal held firm for an important three points in a hard-fought battle – one that didn’t really need to be. They’ve momentarily closed the gap on London rivals Chelsea down to three points in fifth, ahead of their afternoon clash with West Ham today.
As for the Saints, Mark Hughes certainly has his work cut out in the final few weeks of the campaign. They’ve got six matches remaining and need to start picking up points now, otherwise Championship football will be an unwanted reality ahead of the new season.