I turned on my stream in time to catch the warmups. Southampton’s Luke Shaw was kicking the ball with purpose to a teammate, and the look on his face was serious, severe even. It may have been me reading something into it but I felt like I was watching a player who was warmed up both physically and mentally. And that’s when I felt this deja vu creep over me of that day at Wembley as I watched Birmingham warm up for the League Cup final and I thought Southampton was a team ready to give Arsenal a good game.
Then, as they took to the center circle for kickoff, I was reminded of Bradford’s captain bragging about how their manager wrote ‘poor team’ on the Arsenal team sheet before Arsenal’s ignominious exit at their hands in the League Cup last month. I wondered if Southampton’s Atkins had done the same? Or if, at least, he had mentioned Bradford. As in, “are you boys better than Bradford? Prove it.” And on the measure of the game, they did.
The reality is that Bradford is the low water mark for Arsenal and that every team can now hang hope on their example. “Are you better than Bradford?” could have been the rallying cry in the Southampton dressing room. Arsenal weren’t better than Bradford on that day and they weren’t yesterday against Southampton. And the hard truth many Arsenal fans are waking up to this morning is that despite the massive gap in spending between the two teams and the pedigree of Arsenal, very little remained between them and it was the North London “superclub” who were lucky to get away with a point.
Arsene started the match with Theo Walcott up front as the lone center forward and it worked a charm, if the charm was intended to prove that Theo is not a center forward in order to lower his asking price in contract negotiations. He had 4 passes in the first half and only 5 touches by the time his free kick was fortuitously deflected into the Southampton goal. He won exactly zero aerial duels despite the fact that Arsenal’s Polish keeper kept kicking the ball to him and his isolation up front was so complete that it reminded me of the game in which Arsene Wenger put Andrei Arshavin up front as a center forward only for the fans to watch in horror as Szczesny again kicked ball after fruitless ball to him.
The problem wasn’t, as so many are trying to argue, that Southampton “played deep”: they actually didn’t play extraordinarily deep against Arsenal. The problem is that Theo Walcott didn’t know what to do when starved of service. What he should have done was drop deep, like Robin van Persie does, and insert himself into the game. Draw the defenders out and create space for others. Instead, he wandered around up front waiting to be spoon fed the ball. There’s more to being a center forward than pace and scoring goals, there’s an entire tactical side of the game that clearly Walcott had no clue about yesterday and which hopefully he has today.
And credit must go to Southampton’s players and staff who contrived to starve Theo of service by shutting down Arsenal’s wing-backs and forwards through a combination of good tackling, early pressing, and reading the passing lanes. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was 0/4 in dribbles and passed the ball at a team low 63%*. The Ox spent the entire evening in Luke Shaw’s pocket searching for licorice allsorts among the bits of fluff that were his game.
Shaw and Cork were ably aided by Morgan Schneiderlin who had the game I thought he would have in the first meeting. He’s a much classier midfielder than many give credit and while he may be a bit one-paced reads the game very well, tackles well (4/4), and is very tidy in possession. He and Steven Davis combined well to cover Arsenal’s flanks and force Arsenal to dribble into blind corners throughout the match. As you can see by the tackling chart, those four (Shaw, Cork, Schneiderlin, and David) simply clipped Arsenal’s wings:
Up front, Puncheon was outstanding for Southampton and was easily the man of the match. He took four shots, got two on target, dribbled past both fullbacks, cut back, led Southampton in crossing and generally showed good vision and guile for a wide player. Exactly the kind of player that Arsenal are missing.
This is not to say that Arsenal should buy Puncheon. Rather, that Arsenal played at a level that makes players like Puncheon and Luke Shaw look like viable transfer targets. No offense, but those shouldn’t be players Arsenal aspire to acquire. But that’s the problem with this Arsenal team, they were matched, kick for kick, pass for pass, tackle for tackle, and shot for shot with Southampton. Yesterday’s 1-1 draw wasn’t an example of Arsenal getting unlucky, they created just one shot on goal all game, it was yet another example of how Arsenal can play down to any team’s level.
With silent lips, “Give us your Bradfords, your Norwich,
your Southamptons yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your lower league.
Send these, the pointless, hard-workers to me,
I lift the light of free points for their fatigue!
There are a lot of people calling for reinforcements at Arsenal in the January transfer window. Bodies, they say, are needed. And it’s hard to disagree that Arsenal couldn’t find improvement in every single position. But the problem is that Arsenal have plenty of bodies and they don’t need any more lying around collecting paychecks. They need players, not bodies. They need hard work. They need fresh ideas. And they simply need to play better than the Southamptons of the world.
This is The Arsenal we are talking about here.
*Technically, Szczesny and Giroud were lower in passing percent. But Giroud came on late and keepers always have a low passing rate because they try so many long balls.