Promises, promises. After last week’s humiliation by Chelsea, Southampton manager Ralph Hasenhuttl promised Southampton would not defend in such casual fashion this week.
The Austrian could not have been more correct. With Tottenham Hotspur’s lunchtime defeat by Brighton & Hove Albion raising open the top four door for Arsenal, Southampton slammed it firmly shut with an impeccable resistance to Arsenal’s near-constant pressure. And just for good measure, a Southampton defender, Jan Bednarek, scored the only goal.
Stung by last week’s flip-flops-wearing performance against Chelsea, Hasenhuttl defenestrated half of his defence, switched to a back five and dropped his entire strike force.
Arsenal had ghosts of their own to exorcise after Brighton achieved the first of their north London double whammy last week. With Alexandre Lacazette ill, Eddie Nketiah made his first league start of the season, Granit Xhaka was moved to left midfield from left back, where Nuno Tavares started.
After four defeats in five league games, Southampton had new players but old habits. Eighteen minutes in, one of the promoted starters, Yan Valery, dawdled in possession and was robbed by the eager Nketiah. He found Gabriel Martinelli, who crossed expertly for Bukayo Saka to meet first time, only for Fraser Forster to save brilliantly.
For all that, Southampton had solidity in numbers. Arsenal’s front three whizzed and buzzed around them, but tellingly without causing too much consternation, but with Mohamed Elyounoussi and Stuart Armstrong peripheral as James Ward-Prowse and Oriol Romeu struggled to click, Arsenal controlled the midfield supply lines.
And with the game ambling towards the break with Arsenal well on top, Southampton snuck ahead. Arsenal struggled to clear a Ward-Prowse corner. It fell to Romain Perraud on the edge of the penalty area. Running away from goal, he hooked the ball over his head to Elyounoussi, who scampered to the byline and crossed for Bednarek to blast past Aaron Ramsdale first time. The goalkeeper got his hand to the ball, but Bednarek’s contact was too firm for him and the Pole had his first goal since January.
Startled at the turn the afternoon was taking, Arsenal kept their shape, their neatness and their midfield-swamping approach, but they also retained their inability to create real chances, both within and for their front three until Nketiah guided a Cedric Soares cross wide with his heel.
On the hour, as early desperation took hold, Mikel Arteta swapped Soares for Emile Smith Rowe. The pressure mounted, but such was the doggedness of Southampton’s massed ranks that Arsenal were restricted to long-range speculation, although only Saka really went close until Nicolas Pepe arrived to inject fizz and intensity. The Ivory Coast international was soon glancing Xhaka’s cross just wide, shortly before Forster’s second moment of wonder, when he somehow almost reached behind himself to paw aside Smith’ Rowe’s seemingly certain equalizer.
Still Arsenal pressed. Martin Odegard went close with a fierce daisy cutter and hoofed over when well placed; Forster saved smartly from Xhaka, but Southampton would not and did not yield.