Arsenal 2 Southampton 1
Arsenal: Koscielny (29'), Cazorla (90'+4 pen)
Southampton: Cech (18' og)
Man of the match: Santi Cazorla (Arsenal)
Not many teams did as much harm to Arsenal’s title chances as Southampton last season.
A 4-0 thrashing at St Marys in December halted Arsenal’s momentum following a confidence-boosting victory over Manchester City a few days previously, while a 0-0 draw at the Emirates Stadium in February extended the hosts’ winless run to four matches and left them five points adrift of the leaders.
Only Chelsea, who won both home and away against their London rivals, took more points off Arsenal than Southampton in 2015/16, and for long periods of Saturday’s encounter, the trend looked set to continue.
Southampton would have been good value for the draw they looked like securing until Santi Cazorla’s late intervention, when the Spaniard scored a penalty in second-half stoppage time after Jose Fonte was harshly adjudged to have fouled Laurent Koscielny. It was not to be, though; Arsenal, with luck on their side, found a way to win after a below-par performance.
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For that they deserve credit, particularly as Wenger and his team have been criticised in the past for failing to grind out victories when they have not played particularly well, but Arsenal will need to improve if they are to challenge the likes of Manchester City, Manchester United and Chelsea for the Premier League title.
There was a puzzling lethargy to the home side’s play in the early stages, with Southampton moving the ball around confidently as they were allowed to build possession from the back. Their positive start was rewarded with a somewhat fortuitous opening goal. Dusan Tadic’s free-kick hit the crossbar before bouncing off Petr Cech and rolling over the line, but Arsenal could have few complaints about falling behind.
The response came through Koscielny 11 minutes later, the central defender applying an acrobatic finish after Southampton failed to clear a Cazorla corner, but Arsenal still lacked intensity and spark for the remainder of the first period.
Lucas Perez, making his first start since a £17 million (Dh82.8m) move from Deportivo La Coruna, struggled to make an impact as his new team’s central striker, while fellow attackers Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Mesut Ozil were also quiet as Southampton formed a compact defensive shape from back to front and side to side.
Arsenal did improve after the interval, with Cazorla at the heart of most of their forays forward, but they still found it difficult to create clear-cut scoring opportunities as the visitors did a good job of condensing space in the final third.
Southampton also posed a sporadic threat on the counter-attack but could not take advantage of their few promising openings, with Arsenal then coming on strong as the clock ticked down and the three points threatened to disappear over the horizon.
While the awarding of the penalty was controversial, Cazorla showed great mental strength to calmly convert after a lengthy delay while Koscielny received treatment. It was just reward for the midfielder’s excellent display and a goal which Wenger himself said was vital in terms of the mood around the club.
“We had a bit of a slow start [but] came back well into the game,” the Arsenal manager said. “When you lose your first home game, you can’t afford to drop points in the second game because it creates an anxiety.”
They left it late and this was not a match free of apprehension, but Arsenal ultimately did just enough to win it.
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