It was important to get back to winning ways as the business end of the season looms, with so much still to play for. After an early exit from our own tournament, to which many – including myself – questioned given the number of changes made, Arteta was eager to set the record straight and clearly had a bee in his bonnet.
“We had five players in the FA Cup that couldn’t play … I want to make that clear. The ones that played today they were to play some part of the game.”
Given the calibre of players missing, and the convincing manner in which the league tie was won, it makes the F.A. Cup defeat easier to swallow. There were still notable absentees to contend with like Tierney and Aubameyang, which makes the result all the more impressive.
I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little bit worried given how the early stages of the game unfolded. A missed golden opportunity… here we go. Concede from a set piece after a lapse in concentration. Scriptwriters are back to work…
It’s another game which actually benefitted from a lack of supporters – even away from home – because they could crack on without the background drone of disappointment, and they did just that. In fairness to Lacazette, although I was bitterly disappointed to see him denied in real-time, McCarthy was out with such speed that it made life difficult. Also, speaking from experience, having a chance fall to you so early in the game is always a surprise and sometimes you haven’t quite found your feet yet. Even then, McCarthy was lucky to get just enough on the block to deny any rebounds and as we later found out, rushing out like Prime Neuer isn’t always the best idea…
We’re still by no means a first half team – far from it – so the immediacy to which the players responded was refreshing to see.
They’d started as they’d meant to go on, which was pressing as a unit as high up the pitch as possible. Lacazette’s pressure was enough to regain possession and having already threatened with the earlier through-ball for Lacazette, Xhaka was able to slip Pépé between the lines and he showed two things which have been known to escape him; strength and composure. Game on.
The pressing was relentless and Southampton were so often forced to go long, which was bread and butter for Luiz and Holding. I don’t know if Arteta adapted his approach based on what he saw on Saturday, but even going behind, there was a clear strategy and the rate of turnover was integral to the eventual turnaround. We’re once again showing a kind of unity in everything we do; without the ball, the press comes from the top down, with Lacazette and Smith Rowe interchangeably pressing Southampton’s last man, to Saka and Pépé both being hot on the heels of Southampton’s fullbacks, with the latter making the joint highest ball recoveries along with Smith Rowe.
The circumstances in which we took the lead were unusual by our standards, but no less than we deserved. With Xhaka once again collecting the ball and passing forwards into space, Lacazette without hesitation got his head up and played a first-time ball through to Saka. It later emerged that the two had spoken about this exact scenario before the game, so to see it come to fruition for them must do them the world of good. After Smith Rowe’s glowing praise of Lacazette’s help behind the scenes, it’s great to see things continue to come together.
As for the finish, I do wonder if it was a bit of Hot-Hand Fallacy that was McCarthy’s undoing, but his Fabianski-esque adventure still left Saka with so much to do. After nicking the ball past him, he somehow digs a shot out with his weak foot all in the same motion. I don’t know how he stayed on his feet or got enough power to put that away, but he did both and it was another special moment. In some ways though, I’m not surprised because he does seem to just take everything in his stride – on and off the field, if his post-match interview was anything to do by.
With the inevitable half-time pushback from Southampton, it was important to weather the storm and protect the lead, and they did just that. There were some customary concentration-lapses from Luiz, which will no doubt put his starting place in the lineup against United into question, but Holding was alert and steadfast as he’s so often been.
The clincher was another wildly different goal to not only the others in this match, but in general. What Cédric managed to do (not for the first time either) is something we’ve been accustomed to seeing from Robertson and Alexander-Arnold to great effect, and the other pieces of the puzzle were able to do his cross-field pass justice. I’m running out of superlatives for Saka but once again, I find myself questioning why and how he’s able to do what he does; just nonchalantly hits a side-footed half-volley on his weak foot – first time – and the cross is on a plate for Lacazette. Painfully casual and yet more end product. I dread to think how much he would actually be worth and who’s thinking about coming knocking.
That pretty much killed the game and after Ings made way shortly after, I was a lot more optimistic about our chances to close the game out, as much as I expected Kevin Friend to pull some kind of stunt to help Southampton on top of his inability to book any of them. Thankfully, we did just that.
Looking forward to the weekend, we have a duty to stop this ridiculous notion that United are in the title race. Not that I’m bitter, but they simply cannot win the league and they need stopping by any means necessary, sort of like the farce on 49. That means we’re going to need Partey and Smith Rowe to shake off whatever problems they’ve picked up (which thankfully don’t sound serious) because they are both a joy to watch.
Whether Aubameyang will be back in time is now less of a concern, and it might just be an opening to make something of one Nicolas Pépé. He’s been getting a lot of stick lately, but as I said in my last post, I still have a sneaking suspicion there’s a player in there somewhere. Still don’t know if that’ll be at Arsenal but for now, we have to try and make the most of him. In fairness, he does seem to rise to the occasion, with some of his best games coming in the final stages of our road to victory in the F.A. Cup, and one of his early performances away to Liverpool in which he gave Van Dijk more than a few concerns. I’ve no doubt he’s a confidence player and if he starts at the weekend again, I think there’s a chance for him to do some damage.