Olivier Giroud rescues Arsenal at Southampton but flaws exposed again
SOUTHAMPTON, England -- Three points from Arsenal's late rescue of a point against Southampton at St Mary's
1. Giroud salvages last-gasp draw for Arsenal
Olivier Giroud hauled Arsenal out of jail at St Mary's to give Arsene Wenger's men a point that, for long periods, did not look likely. They had laboured in response to Charlie Austin's third-minute goal, barely creating a chance in the second half and being fortunate not to fall further behind. But Giroud's towering header three minutes from time, 14 minutes after his introduction from the bench, earned a draw that could still prove crucial in the top-four race.
On a cold, gusty lunchtime on the south coast the home team began like a whirlwind and the opener arrived within 129 seconds. It came from a marvellous piece of vision by Dusan Tadic, even if Arsenal will regret the snatched clearance by Per Mertesacker that allowed him to drive at their defence. Tadic's clipped reverse pass set an onside Austin clear inside the box and the striker jabbed home expertly for his fourth goal in as many games.
The same combination should have brought a second goal two minutes later, Austin shooting too close to Petr Cech this time. Arsenal were at sixes and sevens in the opening stages, not threatening until Alexandre Lacazette spun and shot at Fraser Forster after the quarter-hour.
Lacazette was then foiled brilliantly by Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg's tackle after a rapid counter; they had grown in menace and came closer still in the 32nd minute when Forster, diving sharply to his left, made a brilliant low stop from Aaron Ramsey's snap shot. Lacazette then shot over from a similar position, and by the interval this was engaging if sometimes messy fare, the hosts still posing significant danger on the break.
That was underlined early in the second half when Nathan Redmond cut inside and thudded a meaty effort at Cech. Arsenal were enjoying plenty of the ball but creating little with it; they were leaving gaps at the back and Oriol Romeu almost exploited one with a 22-yard effort that clipped the bar with 28 minutes left. Shortly afterwards Ryan Bertrand, scampering clear on to another Tadic pass, spurned a glorious chance to make the game safe by dinking wide of both Cech and the far post.
Wenger sent on the cavalry, introducing Danny Welbeck, Jack Wilshere and Giroud. Forster beat away a free-kick from the otherwise quiet Sanchez as the clock ticked down and the late pressure mounted. Southampton seemed to be holding out in relative comfort but then Sanchez crossed from the left, Giroud leapt superbly and they salvaged a point they did not deserve.
2. Gunners' spirit papers over cracks
The intense frustration for Arsenal is that they might be capable of so much more if they started games adequately. They never gave themselves a fighting chance of getting a grip on the game here -- and were fortunate it did not cost them dear for the second weekend in a row.
Mertesacker had not started a Premier League game for six weeks and cannot solely be blamed for Austin's goal, but his miscue and subsequent stumble gave Tadic space to find the pass, with nobody else in a hopelessly square backline able to handle Austin's run.
The ease with which Southampton sliced them open in the first 15 minute begged the question of why Wenger did not stick with the back four he switched to -- with some success -- during the defeat to Manchester United. But even then it seems academic: Arsenal can claim to have turned as many corners as they like, and declare they have learned all manner of lessons, but the same mistakes keep repeating themselves. The conclusion can only be one of the following: either the players are not being prepared correctly, or the individuals themselves are simply not good enough.
Perhaps more worrying is that their issues are not confined to the defence. Arsenal showed admirable vigour and invention against United but the wider pattern is that this is far from the slick attacking machine of even five years ago. Lacazette might have scored in the first half here but there was little evidence that he, Sanchez and Ozil have struck up an intuitive understanding.
In midfield Granit Xhaka looked lost and Arsenal looked noticeably more purposeful when Wilshere, whose name the away fans had started singing in the first half, was introduced. There is little coherent pattern and it seems too often that Arsenal are reliant on individual moments of initiative or fortune.
Giroud certainly produced one, with Arsenal by now resorting to relatively rudimentary means of attack. It was their second successive late show away from home after the last-gasp win at Burnley a fortnight ago; nobody can doubt Arsenal's spirit but the cracks it is papering over will not go away.
3. Saints on the up despite late blow
What a kick in the teeth this was for Southampton. However, the long-term positives may still be more significant. Prior to this afternoon they had not beaten a team in the current top six since May 2016. That record remains but this was a performance to suggest their old, vibrant identity might just be on its way back and the kind of afternoon that could give Mauricio Pellegrino's reign genuine lift-off.
It helps when you have a striker in form and Austin, a finisher with an old-fashioned nose for goal, currently looks razor-sharp. He had not started a league game this season until the 4-1 win over Everton last month, when he scored twice, and missed a sizeable chunk of last term after starting off in tremendous form. He needs to produce over a lengthy run in the team but the signs are good and it helps that the players around him are buzzing with energy once more.
That energy, a freshness in attack and snappiness in the challenge, used to be a hallmark at St Mary's and in recent weeks Pellegrino seems to have rediscovered it. Tadic, sometimes a mercurial presence but full of invention and devilment here, should have had three assists to his name while Redmond produced a buzzing, all-action performance. In midfield there was a tenacious box-to-box display by Hojbjerg, who has undergone something of a renaissance in recent weeks and showed far more clarity than his counterparts in blue.
In the end Southampton were punished for not adding to their lead. They had defended the edge of their box expertly before breaking in numbers time and again: a combination of poor finishing and final balls let them down and, even when off form, a side of Arsenal's quality is always liable to pack an untimely punch. But Pellegrino will have few complaints about their general play: this was a far remove from, to take one example, the flat performance Southampton produced here against Manchester United in September. Perhaps they are on their way back.
Nick Ames is a football journalist who writes for ESPN FC on a range of topics. Twitter: @NickAmes82.