Tuesday, February 7, 2023

Southampton 1-1 Arsenal: Internal and external frustration

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As we have done more than once this season, Arsenal started yesterday’s match brightly and got on top of the opposition quickly. Inside 11 minutes Gabriel Jesus was put through but flagged for offside; Bukayo Saka fizzed in a really dangerous cross; Granit Xhaka forced the keeper into a good save; and Martin Odegaard clipped a shot wide when he should have hit the target.

That pressure told in the end when Ben White overlapped in the 12th minute, pulled the ball back to the centre of the box and there was Xhaka to smash home another right-footed goal on the half-volley to make it 1-0. And it was no less than we deserved based on how we were playing.

What happened next was a pivotal moment in the game for me. Jesus was clearly fouled as he got wrong side of Caleta-Car, and not only should it have been a penalty, it could easily have been a red card for the defender. He made no attempt to play the ball and it was clearly denying a goal scoring opportunity. Assuming we’d scored the penalty, 2-0 up against 10 men for 75 minutes is a very different game. Instead, the referee played on, VAR was obviously having a day off, and it set the tone for what was to come.

It told Southampton that manhandling players inside the box wasn’t going to be punished, so they did it everywhere they could, with Jesus being the main recipient of that treatment. Time and time again the defender had arms around him, clearly holding and impeding him, and every single time the referee allowed play to go on. I’m all for a physical game, but a foul is a foul, regardless of the ‘Let it flow’ motto that PGMOL have implemented this season. Letting the game flow is not the same as letting players make repetitive fouls without censure.

It added to the frustration when Saka was handed a ludicrous booking for simulation, and this continued right throughout the game. When it gets to a point where a guy aims a very obvious headbutt, as Lyanco did towards Eddie Nketiah late on – before putting hands on his face (remember Xhaka v Burnley?) – and only a yellow card is reluctantly dished out, you know there’s something wrong. In all honesty, I can’t remember a refereeing display like this before.

Still, that’s something we can’t control, and what we could control we didn’t do well enough. Southampton’s switch to a back five in the first half went some way to halting our momentum, but they didn’t threaten much bar a succession of corners which Ward-Prowse delivered well and which we defended well (I even think one or two of them were generous decisions for the home side).

Jesus hit the side netting; Martinelli’s brilliant run deserved more than the corner it resulted in; Saka had a go; and Odegaard’s brilliant combination with Jesus should have seen us go in 2-0 at the break but the striker’s finish lacked a bit of conviction and he hit it straight at Gavin Bazunu. I don’t think he’s been quite the same since the Liverpool game when he took that blow to the head.

There were warning signs in the second half as we struggled to create the chances we did in the first. William Saliba made a big mistake but thankfully that came to nothing. Once again Jesus had the chance to make it 2-0 after working hard to win it back before Odegaard sent him clean through, but he took a poor touch before a tame shot which allowed the defender to block it. A key moment that was in our control, and we didn’t make the most of it.

That was in the 60th minute. Five minutes later they were level. A step-over in midfield saw them break the lines, and from deep Stuart Armstrong ran into the box to level. I wonder if better communication from William Saliba to Ben White might have helped as he could see the run the Southampton man was making, but there didn’t seem to be a shout and the right-back got caught unaware for the finish. 1-1.

Immediately Mikel Arteta was on his feet gesturing to his players to raise the level. Conceding is part and parcel of football, it’s how you react, and the most disappointing aspect of yesterday was that the last 20 minutes or so were the sloppiest we’ve been all season in my opinion. The ball didn’t stick, passes didn’t go where they were supposed to, players got caught in possession time and time again.

Afterwards, the manager said:

We stopped doing all the simple things right. The distances on the ball positions were too far, we gave too many simple balls away in very dangerous areas without much pressure and that didn’t allow us much continuity like we had in the first half.

So as much as the officiating was frustrating, we didn’t do what we’re capable of. The subs didn’t really help, although I think Kieran Tierney’s introduction gave us more down that left hand side. Could he have had a penalty? I can’t say for sure, because like the incident in the first half when Ben White seemed to be very clearly pushed over, we didn’t get any replays of it so it’s hard to be conclusive. You can hear a very definite ‘slap’ on the TV coverage though and the way he went down holding his neck suggests he got a whack. VAR? No idea.

What I would say is that against a team like Southampton, his ability to overlap in a way that Takehiro Tomiyasu doesn’t gave us more threat and I think he should have started. We had the ball in the net through Odegaard, but Tierney’s cut-back came after the ball had gone behind the end line. Fabio Vieira came on and offered little, contributing more to the sloppiness of the final stages of the game than anything else.

All in all, a frustrating day, and it’s entirely possible to acknowledge that we didn’t do enough with the chances we had, as well as acknowledging the refereeing was a shambles. The two things can be true at the same time. The latter doesn’t excuse the former, and had we done better with good opportunities to score, the ref stops being as relevant. On a day when didn’t though, it remains an unfortunate talking point.

Arteta again:

No complaints. This is football. We were really good in the first half and controlled totally the game, we created loads of big chances that we didn’t put away. In the Premier League, unfortunately, if you don’t do that when you are top of the game you can have some difficulties.

He won’t say anything publicly about the officiating, but I’m sure there must have been some frustration. Nicolas Jover was booked after all. However, he’ll focus more on increasing efficiency in the final third as the best solution, and hopefully we see that in the games ahead.

St Mary’s has always been a tricky place for us to go, and on the balance on the chances, we still should have won yesterday. Dropping points is never enjoyable, but the big picture is that a draw away from home keeps us top of the table, and inevitably there are going to be games like this throughout the season. If we all looked at October and harboured some concerns about how the schedule might impact us, maybe we have to put this one down as one of those. Now, we pick ourselves up and do better next weekend against Nottingham Forest after more midweek action against PSV.

Right, let’s leave it there for now. James and I will be recording the Arsecast Extra this morning. Keep an eye out for the call for questions on Twitter @gunnerblog and @arseblog on Twitter with the hashtag #arsecastextra – or if you’re on Arseblog Member on Patreon, leave your question in the #arsecast-extra-questions channel on our Discord server.

We’ll have the pod for you around lunchtime. Until then.

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