You have to admit, we are a classy club.
Yes, the FA Cup is our trophy. We own it. It should be called the AFC Cup and its permanent home is on a plinth in a cabinet in N5. But we’re so nice that on certain occasions we consent to lend it out to others. Yesterday was one of those occasions. We have generously bowed out of the 2021-22 tournament to give someone else a chance.
It must have been our intention, right? We put in such a poor and disjointed performance at St Mary’s that it’s the only explanation.
Either way, a very committed Saints side emerged as 1-0 victors. There was an element of luck about their goal, but even the most biased of Arsenal fans would surely admit they deserved their win.
For Mikel Arteta, the game will have reinforced some conclusions that he already seems to have reached: namely that Willian and Pepe are just not doing enough to be considered starters for an important game and that our best team is one that includes the names Saka, Smith Rowe, Tierney and Partey.
El Patron made seven changes from our last league game, resting Smith Rowe (not even on the bench), Lacazette and Tierney and giving starts to Willian, Pepe, Elneny, Cedric, Martinelli, Gabriel and Nketiah. Aubameyang pulled out on the day of the game because of a family issue.
Right from the kick-off it was clear Southampton were going to press us with real commitment and organisation. Our playing out from the back has been good recently, but it wasn’t in this one – which is not entirely surprising when you consider we had a right-footed left back and a rusty Gabriel making his first start since contracting Covid 19.
The Saints press meant we were unable to play through midfield and when we did get down the flanks we were unable to make anything happen. Cedric and Martinelli were not on the same wavelength and other communication issues cropped up elsewhere.
Players who have been reliable for several weeks started making mistakes (Rob Holding in particular) and at times we played like a bunch of blokes who’d never set eyes on each other before until they’d met in the pub car park half an hour earlier.
I really wanted Willian and Pepe to shine. We need them to show some decent form between now and the end of the season. But they were really poor. Pepe was invisible for most of the first half and Willian seemed to make a speciality of ignoring forward passes that were clearly on, taking too many touches, then passing backwards (on the occasions when he didn’t just lose possession).
Pepe was a bit better towards the end and set up a couple of chances for Nketiah. He possibly still has something to offer and maybe could become more influential with a run of games, but as for a use for Willian… I just don’t know. Do the cleaning staff at the Emirates need a new duster?
The Southampton goal came from a low shot which went through Cedric’s legs and looked to be covered by Leno until a deflection from Gabriel took it past him. The German had earlier made an excellent low stop but there was nothing he could do about this one.
At the other end Martinelli got through for a one-on-one with the Saints ‘keeper but fluffed his shot (admittedly a difficult technique – trying to volley a ball coming over the shoulder from behind). The Brazilian was energetic as usual but failed to make much of an impact on the game.
The second half saw more of the same until the final 20 minutes when Southampton started to tire (and also began to instinctively protect their lead) and our substitutes added a bit more intelligence and intensity to our play.
Partey and Saka came on just before the hour mark for Martinelli and Elneny. I can only imagine the club are still being careful with Martinelli’s minutes otherwise surely it would have been one of Pepe or Willian coming off (or even Nketiah).
Partey and Saka immediately made a difference and we started to threaten the opposition goal at last. A Saka cross almost found the head of Lacazette (who’d come on for Bellerin on 71 minutes) and Nketiah had a couple of chances including one really good one in the dying moments that he snatched at and skied over the bar.
The whistle ended a disappointing day for us in Hampshire. Arteta blamed the defeat on poor finishing in the second half, but the truth is we were second best overall.
We return to St Mary’s on Tuesday and some observers seem to think this win gives Southampton a psychological advantage over us for the league game but I’m not buying that. With our first team regulars restored it will be a totally different kettle of fish and I expect us to take all the points.
Leno – 7
The only starter to really come out of the game with any credit.
Bellerin – 5
An indifferent performance.
Holding – 5.5
Usually so dependable, Big Rob misplaced too many passes in this one, although still performed his defensive duties well. He had one half chance to score and took his shot with all the finesse of a true centre half.
Gabriel – 5
A shaky, rusty performance from the returning CB. We know how good he is from his performances earlier in the season, but on this evidence it’s going to take him a while to get back to his best.
Cedric – 5
Some good intent from Ced with decent attacking forays but his crossing was terrible (admittedly he was on the wrong side of the park, but even when he cut onto his right those crosses were hit with a driver when a nine-iron was called for).
Xhaka – 5
What he did on the ball was fine, but what he didn’t do was get enough of a grip in midfield, so we were forced to play wide or punt long balls forward.
Elneny – 5
Same as Xhaka.
Willian – 3
He can’t want to play this badly, so what’s wrong with him? A truly terrible outing. We would have been better with 10 men and no Willian. And I mean that seriously, not as a joke. At least we would have lost possession less frequently.
Pepe – 4
He had some “moments” in the second half as Saints sat back. His footwork was good at times but he flatters to deceive. He was invisible for large parts of this game and is not a difference-maker.
Martinelli – 5
Willing as ever, but nothing much came off for him.
Nketiah – 4.5
Eddie was not involved enough in the first half (not all his fault but he could have done more) and when he did get a couple of decent chances he fluffed his lines.
Partey – 7
He immediately improved us for the better, helped take charge of midfield and got us moving forward at long last.
Saka – 7
His half hour or so had the main benefit of highlighting why Pepe and Willian should be kept away from the first team. Dynamic running, slick passing and intelligent all-round play.
Lacazette – 6
Not on long enough to have much of an impact.