Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Arsenal 1-1 Southampton: At least we didn’t lose

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Well, at least we didn’t lose!

That the bar has been set so low is obviously a major issue, something we have to contend with and come to terms with, but in the context of our current situation and another game in which we were reduced to ten men, a point is welcome.

Mikel Arteta made changes, with Ainsley Maitland-Niles, Dani Ceballos, Eddie Nketiah and Nicolas Pepe all coming back in. Willian dropped to the bench for the first time since his arrival in the summer, and our set-up at the start showed us lined up in a 5-2-3 formation with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang back on the left.

From the start Gabriel, who has been one of our best performers this season, looked a little off. He clattered Che Adams with an outstretched arm early on, I worried because VAR can make things like that look worse than they actually are. He was then involved as Southampton took the lead through Theo Walcott (of course), getting tight in midfield but failing to win it, and a good pass put Theo through to score with the kind of finish we’ve seen from him at the Emirates down the years.

All too easy for Southampton, and for a team as low on confidence as we are, conceding that goal had an obvious impact. The visitors dominated possession, we couldn’t get near the ball at times, and when we did have it we didn’t do enough with it. We are far too static in possession, thus leaving the man with the ball few options beyond the safe pass. It’s hard to be progressive when there’s nobody to progress the ball to, and we have an incredible capacity for making ourselves look the opposition have at least one extra man on the pitch.

Towards the end of the half Ceballos made a good run into the box, turned, and dived to try and win a penalty when if he’d stayed on his feet he could have found Maitland-Niles coming in unmarked at the back post for a tap-in. It was interesting to hear Aubameyang say afterwards that ‘At the moment we are a bit nervous because we need points and sometimes we do bad things’, and this was bad.

The Spaniard then picked up a yellow card for dissent just before the break, needless and annoying because we’re a team that needs to sort itself out from a disciplinary point of view. Bukayo Saka, kicked from pillar to post week after week, showed Ceballos the benefit of staying upright as he drove towards the Southampton box early in the second half. He kept going despite their attempts to barge him and clatter him, played it inside, Eddie nicked it around the corner to Aubameyang whose finish was clinical. His first goal from open play in the Premier League since the opening day, and one Arteta hopes will be the first of many now that he’s ended that drought.

Gabriel then picked up a yellow card for a foul on Che Adams, and while I can’t be sure he wasn’t going to be booked anyway, kicking the ball away made sure the referee put his name in the book. I was worried, this from the live blog:

And so it turned out. Just a couple of minutes later he committed an obvious foul on Walcott in the centre-circle, and off he went. I know we like him, and as I said he’s been one of the bright spots this season, but if another defender did what he did, picking up two yellows in quick succession, I don’t think there’d be much sympathy. What I would say is that I have to question how our set-up is such that one pass from the goalkeeper to the halfway line can leave this team so exposed that our centre-half feels he has to make that kind of a foul on an opposition forward. Ceballos and Elneny had gone pressing high up the pitch, and there was nobody to offer any protection. If Walcott had turned and got away from Gabriel, they’d have had a 3 on 2 situation and that’s really poor – especially as it just came from a straight ball from the keeper, not particularly crafty football or anything.

Ceballos had to come off as Arteta couldn’t risk another player picking up a second yellow, and having been booked so stupidly, the manager probably couldn’t trust him not to do something daft again. Joe Willock replaced him, and we sat deep to try and earn a point. It wasn’t pretty, and I know we got a bit of luck when Nathan Redmond hit the bar, but all things considered there wasn’t much else we could do but try and stay organised and see it out for a point.

When you’re a team utterly bereft of belief and confidence, completely and utterly out of form, and on the verge of setting an unprecedented and unwelcome record by losing a fifth consecutive game at home for the first time in the club’s long history, you can’t do anything but dig in and try hold on for a point. Is it pretty? No. Is it the kind of football we want to see? No. Is it so far removed from the kind of games we used to play with ten men in the past? Yes, by some distance.

But this is now. We are not that kind of team, we’re a long way from being that kind of team, and I can’t even begin to think how much damage another defeat would have done. It’s too early to say we’ve stopped the rot, this particular rot runs deep, but the final 30 minutes were about making sure we didn’t lose and in that context it was mission accomplished. Remarkably, it might even have been better when Rob Holding’s looping, injury-time header came back off the bar, but given the luck we got at the other end, we can’t complain too much.

Afterwards, Arteta said:

Considering the fact that we played 35 minutes with 10 men, we have to take the point because we showed some resilience and character to hang in there for so long against a really dangerous team. But at the same time we’re disappointed because we came back after conceding the goal, we showed how much we wanted it, created some situations and at half-time we corrected a few things. We came back really strong in the game, scored a goal and then when we had the best moments, we shot ourselves in the foot. It obviously made it really hard.

When we spoke about Arsenal not taking enough shots, we didn’t mean in our own feet. That should stop, it has to stop. It’s three red cards in our last five league games, and you just cannot expect to win at this level when you’re having players sent off with that kind of frequency. Gabriel now misses the trip to Everton on Saturday.

So much has been said about this team of late, not much of it good for obvious reasons, and I don’t think we learned a great deal that was new last night. So, if we’re searching for some positives it’s good that Aubameyang scored again; it was nice to see Nicolas Pepe drift into some dangerous central positions in the first half and take a shot; Bukayo Saka remains the big silver lining to our current dark cloud, playing with the kind of bravery and responsibility that makes you worry about the burden a 19 year old is carrying; and while it might be minuscule, the draw gives us something to take into the game at Goodison Park at the weekend.

Let’s see what happens. Back tomorrow with a regular Arsecast, news throughout the dat Arseblog News. Until then.

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