Sunday, 24 November 2013

Arsenal Retain Top Spot By Beating Southampton

Arsenal faced a potentially tricky game at home to Southampton yesterday afternoon and came through it with their lead at the top of the Premier League increased. After Liverpool had only drawn at Everton earlier there was a chance for Southampton to go to the summit themselves if they could win by two goals. They had started the season very well and only lost once in their opening 11 games with only five goals conceded in those games.

The Arsenal team was as expected with Per Mertesacker and Jack Wilshere returning for Thomas Vermaelen and the suspended Mathieu Flamini. The bench looked a little stronger too with Theo Walcott returning after missing over two months through injury. It was a strong looking Arsenal team and I felt confident they could get the win.

Southampton started in their usual fashion by putting the Arsenal players under intense pressure on the ball in their own half. It's a tactic which has worked very well for them this season and they hoped to pressurise Arsenal into mistakes. Arsenal gradually took control though as they passed their way into the Southampton half and began to put their defence under pressure. 

Both Wilshere and Aaron Ramsey hit the same post with sublime pieces of skill as the Southampton goal led a charmed life before Arsenal eventually took the lead. When the goal came it was a complete and utter gift from their keeper Artur Boruc who handed it on a plate to Olivier Giroud. Instead of clearing a back pass first time he switched from right to left a couple of times until Giroud disposed him and rolled the ball into an empty net.

It was the type of gift a player can only dream of and Arsenal had the breakthrough they needed. Southampton came into the game a little more after that and had a couple of decent efforts well saved by Wojciech Szczesny after mistakes by Mikael Arteta on both occasions. The game was far from over at half time but Arsenal were on top and needed a second goal to make their lead more secure.

The second half followed a similar pattern and the longer Arsenal went without getting the second goal the more I worried. As the half progressed Walcott made his comeback with 20 minutes to go in place of Santi Cazorla and Tomas Rosicky came on for Arteta who appeared to have taken a knock. With 10 minutes left Nacho Monreal came on for Mesut Ozil as Arsenal looked to hold on to the lead they had .

It looked like the game would finish 1-0 until Southampton decided to hand Arsenal a second goal on a plate with only four minutes left. Arsenal had a corner on the right and when it came in one of the Southampton defenders pulled Mertesacker's shirt as he went for the ball in full view of the referee. The referee had no choice and pointed to the spot with very little protest from the Southampton players.

With Arteta off the pitch it was Giroud who stepped up to take the penalty and he despatched it in fine style. The game was effectively over and Arsenal had another precious three points along with their fifth consecutive league win at home. 

I can rarely remember seeing an Arsenal goalkeeper kick so many back passes clear as Szczesny did yesterday, but that was a direct result of Southampton's closing down tactics. Szczesny again played his part with good saves at important times in the game. He is still developing as a goalkeeper but he showed the importance of a good goalkeeper yesterday and I'm delighted he's signed a new long term contract.

Arsenal may not have been at their very best yesterday but they came back from an international break with a solid performance and took the three points off a team who have had an excellent start to the season. That Southampton team had already won away to Liverpool and drawn away to United and made things as hard as they could for Arsenal. It was the perfect reaction from Arsenal after losing their last match away to a United.

That goal United scored is the only one Arsenal have conceded in four league games now as their defence continues to grow as a unit. They might not be hitting the heights in an attacking sense at the moment but the solidity at the back is making it much easier to win games. Their next two league games are against two of the newly promoted teams and they're games that need to be won with Everton, City and Chelsea to come after that.

Next up it's back to the Champions League though and the home game with Marseille on Tuesday night. It's another game Arsenal have to win and if they do they will be very close to qualification for the knockout stages. They will be through to the last 16 if they win as long as Dortmund don't win at home to Napoli, but you have to feel Dortmund will win that game. It would be very strange for Arsenal to have to go to Napoli in their last game on 12 points without being already through to the last 16.

First of all they have to beat Marseille though and it will be no walkover despite Marseille having lost all four of their games already. They only lost 3-2 away to Napoli and showed enough in their home defeat to Arsenal to suggest that they might still have some say in how the group finally looks. As long as Arsenal can keep their defensive solidity I think they can beat them and hope for Napoli to take something off Dortmund. 

Arsenal can sit back today and watch the chasing pack attempt to keep pace with them. United face a tricky game away to Cardiff but will be expected to win while City are at home to Spurs. Despite wanting Spurs to lose every game they ever play it wouldn't be a bad result for Arsenal if they took something off City today. 

For the moment though Arsenal are still on top of the table like they have been for two months now. They will still be on top of the table after next week's game no matter what the outcome and a place in the last 16 of the Champions League is within their grasp. Things are pretty good and hopefully they will continue in that vein.

That's it for today.

See you tomorrow,

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