In the lead up to this match I wrote saying Arteta needed to win against Southampton in the league in order to justify his decision to rotate over the weekend. Maybe “justify” is too definitive of a word since every season comes with moments in which managers have to prioritize their competitions, take a risk, and rotate their squad to offer rest. To some, “justify” may make it sound like Arteta threw the FA Cup game, which is not what I believe.
The side selected for the FA Cup was worse than today’s, they were beaten on the day and didn’t deserve a result, but they weren’t blown out by 5 goals. Nor were the names selected so outrageous as to suggest that team was a ridiculous decision. However, it is fair to say that the side selected was filled with players that haven’t rewarded Mikel for his faith in them this year, so expecting a different result from them may have been foolish.
Clearly, this rotation decision was done in order to keep many of the players that featured yesterday fit and ready. Arsenal’s 3-1 win over a Southampton side that has stumped them twice this year certainly demonstrated the value of getting that extra rest in key positions.
Right from the whistle, the match was extremely open and end-to-end. The first two minutes of the match started excellently for Arsenal, followed by the third minute which went horribly for the Gunners. A lively chance created from Xhaka jumping on a loose ball in Southampton’s territory, quickly fed through the defense to Lacazette in on goal. Sadly Lacazette had his effort saved and, just when you found yourself feeling positive about the start despite the massive opportunity missed, Southampton was at the other end punishing Arsenal off a corner kick to make it 1-0.
Fortunately, Arsenal’s heads stayed up, their press stayed active, and they really looked like the more dominative side. The tables had turned from the weekend, and it was Arsenal forcing errors and actively hunting down loose balls with a purpose.
It was Pepe who was caught sleeping on the corner kick and who was slow to react to the late run at the top of the box from Southampton’s Armstrong leading to the goal, but he was quick to make amends just 5 minutes later. Arsenal jump on another forced, errant pass and Xhaka would deliver again. This time finding Pepe in between the defenders and he wouldn’t miss.
Level at one, things felt much more comfortable. Right before the half, Saka would give Arsenal a sense of reward for their hard work when Xhaka scooped up a loose ball and quickly transitioned to Lacazette who played Bukayo through first time. Saka dribbled his way around an onrushing keeper who came outside his box and put it away on an open net. 2-0 at the half.
With the scoreline tight late into the second half, Cedric would ping an absolutely gorgeous cross-field ball to find Bukayo Saka deep into the box and behind Southampton’s line. A brilliant one-touch pass with his weaker foot gave Saka an assist and Lacazette a tap-in goal to put the match out of reach. It’s almost hard to tell whose pass demonstrated more skill — Cedric’s long ball or Saka’s deft touch for the assist.
It was a reverse of this weekend’s match in which Southampton took the initiative to press, looked to transition quickly, and punish the sloppy play and errors Arsenal made. This time, Emile Smith Rowe and Pepe’s match high 7 recoveries, along with the whole midfield’s pressing and the high line of the Arsenal defense, compressed the game and locked Southampton down. Aside from the goal and a few nice saves from Leno, Arsenal controlled the tempo and limited Southampton’s opportunities to claw their way back into things.
Arsenal come away from St. Mary’s Stadium with a much needed three points against a team that has stumped them twice this year, and a win that kicks off their upcoming, hellish run of matches with a positive first step.
Arsenal have Manchester United at home on Saturday and will look to their 6 League match unbeaten streak as they look to keep climbing the table.
To take the double over United this weekend, Arsenal will have to keep progressing and learn from their triumphs and takeaways likes these.
Success in transition
There have been matches throughout the season in which Arsenal have struggled to both create transition opportunities and capitalize on them. Either they don’t recognize the opportunity and retain possession, they get the pass wrong — something a little more forgivable — or they simply progress it too slowly.
Without a doubt, the first one is probably the bane of Arsenal fan’s year. Passing backwards to retain possession when there are options ahead. It’s a criticism hurled at Xhaka quite often, along with moving too slowly.
Yesterday, from the first minutes, Xhaka was looking to move the ball forward fast, which meant Arsenal had two central midfielders playing with positive intent in their game — Xhaka and Partey. It was Xhaka that found Lacazette with a lovely ball and Xhaka that slipped in Pepe for the opening goal, both off of quick transitions.
Throughout the match, Arsenal’s pressure and workrate was forcing errant passes, sloppy giveaways, and creating these openings that the midfield was pouncing on. It’s not something they have been able to do consistently this season, but we can see how devastating it can be when done right.
If ESR’s attacking game is a little off, his defense still speaks volumes
I don’t think you would find too many people that would say this was Smith Rowe’s best attacking game. He was far from poor on the ball, but he didn’t find himself in too many dangerous areas, creating zero statistical chances off the pass. Really, this “criticism” of him is a testament to just how great he has been for Arsenal lately in that attacking midfield role.
In fact, I have often said that the what will make this situation work well is if Smith Rowe is capable of simply playing his game, contributing where he can, but isn’t relied upon to make everything happen on his own in the attack. Yesterday we saw him support the attack and others stepped up splendidly to create and finish.
What ESR offers, that can’t be praised enough, is an incredible workrate off the ball that leads to results. Not to disparage Ozil after he has gone, but it may be fair to suggest that a lot of his defensive work revolved around ushering and corralling opposition players toward other defenders, but not a lot of consistent results in terms of tackles, recoveries, duels won, etc. Smith Rowe has proven himself capable of doing just that.
With a match high 7 recoveries (shared with Pepe), 4 duels won, 2 tackles, and 2 interceptions, Emile Smith was working. Tack on 18 pressures, good for fourth highest on the team, and you begin to get the image of a two-way attacking midfielder that can contribute to the cause with and without the ball.
Why is this important? First, because Arsenal need to continue to shift themselves into a team that can press opposition into mistakes and force the errors that lead to transition opportunities for longer stretches of a match. Lacazette led the line and he led the team in presses which is exactly what you would hope your main striker can offer! Emile Smith Rowe had just seven less pressures.
Second, it’s important to recognize what a difference it makes for Arsenal to have someone in the attack that can offer what Smith Rowe does, but still contribute on the defensive side. We don’t know what kind of play Ødegaard is going to be or how Arteta is going to use him. Some stats suggest Ødegaard is very capable of pressing defenses into mistakes, but there are a lot of people who are familiar with his game that say his workrate and defensive effectiveness are flaws or weaker points in what he has to offer.
Again, not to disparage Ozil, but an attacking midfielder that didn’t contribute off the ball is precisely what drove Arsenal fans nuts about Mesut last season — along with not making up for those poor results with great G/A numbers — it’s something to keep an eye on when Martin does start to get minutes.
Regardless of how Ødegaard shapes out, Smith Rowe is making fantastic contributions in almost every match, even if it’s not always with the ball at his feet and it sends a clear message. “More minutes, please!”
Back up left back found… and then some
Yesterday, Cedric came to play. Wow! When the news was revealed that Tierney would in fact be rested with calf tightness, many will have feared the worst. Last time Tierney missed a match, and Maitland-Niles filled in, the left side of the team was completely vapid. They didn’t have a lot of chemistry, they couldn’t get anything going, and Arsenal really suffered as a whole from the play.
We saw Cedric play the left back role over the weekend and it was a step in the right direction. We saw him excel at it yesterday and it showed us not only that his play at the weekend may have had more to do with who else was on the pitch with him, but what exactly Soares is capable of producing.
Plug in better players, get better results, indeed. Soares created two chances, was on his bike up and down the line overlapping a tucked in Pepe, facilitating Pepe’s fantastic game, hitting the long ball, winning duels (5), making tackles (3), incepting passes, and recovering the ball. He was outstanding.
Is it enough to oust Kieran Tierney? Don’t make me laugh. But it certainly is enough to have earned him real consideration for more starts at the right back position. Hector Bellerin wasn’t bad against Southampton, but Soares was better.
Soares has likely put to rest the worries over not having a true backup left back for the time being, but is putting together a real nice case for earning himself more minutes.
Put the haters to shame, Cedric! Myself included.
The wings flourished, especially Pepe in the “Auba” role
I was going to spend most of this talking about the outstanding play of Pepe, but you cannot NOT mention Bukayo Saka and just how good he has been on that right wing. With an assist and goal yesterday, he now has 9 G/A in his 9 matches playing as the right winger.
I thought the most telling sign of just how great he has become was that Arteta stuck with him on the right wing and put Pepe on the left wing, when in the past, it would have almost been a no-brainer to move Saka. Bukayo is truly claiming that right wing spot as “his” and it is so nice to see him flourishing after being moved positionally just about everywhere.
With Saka on the right wing, it was Pepe that was put on the left wing in place of Aubameyang, much to the dismay of Gabriel Martinelli, I imagine. It’s likely that Pepe was given this opportunity because of his left foot. With him being left-footed and Soares being right footed, they offered the ability to tuck in or drive to the endline. Whatever reason tipped the scales in Pepe’s favor, he rose to the occasion and made it count.
With 1 goal, 2 shots, 13 duels won, 4 successful dribbles, 2 fouls won, 2 tackles, 5 aerial duels won, 1 interception, and 7 recoveries — Pepe played a complete game like we have rarely seen from him. So why this one?
Pepe flourished in what I would call the “Auba role”. Rather than being stranded on the touchline to the right, he was able to tuck himself in much more centrally on the left, get involved with everything, and work off of the play that Lacazette was offering. His goal was actually created from a really similar area in which we have seen Aubameyang get himself into time and time again to score. High with the last defender, splitting the center back and outside back, and looking to exploit the avenue in behind. Xhaka found him and Pepe finished.
Being involved in those spaces certainly compare much closer to the spaces in which he occupied for Lille where most of his success came from. He flits between the lines, in the half spaces, and finds opportunities to get himself in behind dangerously. He runs at defenders, he has people to combine with, and looks like a more complete attacker.
The question that people will be asking is: can we get that consistently? This is certainly a great question and one that I am slightly less confident in.
Southampton is a side that doesn’t drop into a low block, looks to get after you, and inevitably that leaves more spaces than the likes of ‘weaker’ teams. These are games we know Pepe can succeed in.
When Pepe has space and the ball, he finds success. When he finds that success early, his focus is there and he looks to make the next play. It’s the Pepe against teams that block up defensively which frustrate him, and those are matches Arsenal play a lot of over the course of a season. Maybe the “Auba role” is his ticket to success, maybe it was the opposition lending itself to his style. Time will tell as far as how frequently he can replicate this, but he flourished yesterday and was a huge part of Arsenal’s success which is always great to see.
A few short days of rest and then another huge match. This time, Arsenal are home with Manchester United coming to visit.