Southampton were denied a much-needed draw at the Emirates Stadium this afternoon, with a valiant display resulting in a three-two loss.
Danny Welbeck’s brace and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang goal gave the hosts an unconvincing victory, with Shane Long and substitute Charlie Austin scoring for the visitors.
Saints deserved more, and looked like they might snatch all three point following Austin’s 73rd-minute equaliser. But it wasn’t to be, and despite a brave effort in which Southampton played well and threatened throughout, they remain three points off safety with a game in hand on Crystal Palace.
The game plan was clear, for Saints to sit deep and look to hit Long on the counter. Five were selected at the back to firm up Southampton’s leaky defence, with Oriol Romeu brought back in along with James Ward-Prowse.
Despite the defensive set up, Saints had a couple of early chances through Ward-Prowse, with Hector Bellerin clearing the danger.
Long’s pace was causing Arsenal problems, with the Irishman racing onto a long ball over the top ten minutes in but unable to square the ball for the onrushing Dusan Tadic.
The two were on hand minutes later though, with Tadic slipping Cedric Soares in down the right wing, with the Portuguese fullback sliding in order to dig out the cross. With Peter Cech and Shkodran Mustafi sleeping, Long nipped across the defender and toe-poked the ball to give Southampton an unlikely lead.
Saints continued to sit deep, and it took Arsenal nearly half an hour to respond. A quick, incisive move from Arsenal cut Saints open 28 minutes in, with Danny Welbeck ‘s instinctive flick freeing Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang in the box. The forward stretched and toed it past Alex McCarthy, and Arsenal awoke.
In keeping with Saints’ recent form, a collapse nearly ensued with Arsenal countering down the right through Aubameyang, whose brilliant cross was agonisingly close to finding Welbeck at the back post.
Arsenal pressure mounted, with ex-Saint Calum Chambers attempting an overhead kick that lacked the power to trouble Alex McCarthy.
Long was incorrectly judged to be offside 33 minutes in, put through on goal by Tadic following Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg’s excellent tackle. Long raced through onto Tadic’s cross but his finish drifted wide of the goal anyway.
Welbeck put the hosts ahead in the 37th minute, cutting in from the left and firing a shot off Maya Yoshida, giving McCarthy no chance to adjust. Following a brilliant start, Southampton headed into half time behind.
Saints came through an early period of Arsenal pressure in the second half before dominating the game for a long spell. Alex McCarthy made one of several excellent saves off of Mohamed Elneny, with the Englishman diving down to his right impressively. Moments later and the Saints stopper was on hand to deny Alex Iwobi, who fired off a shot with the outside of his boot - McCarthy again tipping the ball round the post.
53 minutes in and it was Cech with the saves, spilling Hojbjerg’s ranged effort with no Saints player there to take advantage of the rebound.
Elneny cleared Wesley Hoedt’s header off the line before the hour mark, with the Saints’ defender rising to meet Ward-Prowse’s corner in impressive fashion.
Not long after and Cech was again on hand to deny Long, who met Ryan Bertrand’s first time cross with Arsenal’s veteran goalie scrambling to the far post to make the save.
Long had the ball in the net 63 minutes in, rushing onto Cedric Soares’s shot from distance with the linesman correctly adjudging the Irishman to be offside.
Saints were very much in the ascendancy, with Hoedt rifling a shot off from distance with Cech again on hand to deny the visitors.
The visitors were showing great determination and fight that has been lacking for much of this season, and equalised following some quick and clever play.
After both Long and Austin earned cheap free kicks, they took the second quickly, with the ball finding its way to Cedric on the right hand side of the box. The full back played a neat one-two and drove deep into the Gunners’ area, cutting the ball back with Austin burying it from 4 yards out.
Saints fully deserved their leveller, with Austin only on the field for a few minutes preceding the goal. Yet Arsenal should have scored again a couple of minutes later, with Welbeck fluffing his lines barely three yards from goal following Jack Wilshere’s cut back. The Englishman was picked out by Iwobi at the back post, with Wilshere squaring the ball to his teammate who could only turn the bouncing ball over the bar.
Austin came close to putting Saints ahead with ten minutes to go, in behind the Arsenal defence and holding off Mustafi’s challenge well but unable to cleanly poke the ball beyond Cech. Seconds later, Welbeck had finished the game off.
Iwobi again found a brilliant cross to the back stick, where Welbeck was no match for Cedric and scrambled the ball home for an undeserved winner.
Tadic’s late half-volley on the turn was tipped over by Cech, and Rob Holding was on hand to deny Josh Sims the chance to fire off a shot after a promising Saints’ move, but Arsenal held on.
Late red cards for Jack Stephens and Elneny ensured that all momentum drained from the final few minutes, with Stephens reacting to a dirty foul from Wilshere that saw the young defender’s shirt ripped badly. Stephens shoved Wilshere over as a result of the cynical foul and had to go with Elneny following for a similar reaction.
Saints did not deserve to lose the game yet did so, but will take huge encouragement from this performance. Not only did they show immense character, but Mark Hughes set the team up well. Saints caused Arsenal problems all afternoon in what was a good away performance full of grit and attacking intensity.
Yet, ultimately it will count for nothing, with time running out on Southampton’s desperate attempt to claw themselves out of the relegation places. If they play like this for the remaining games, they might just get themselves out of trouble.
Arsenal: Cech (c); Bellerín (Holding 74), Chambers, Mustafi, Kolasinac; Elneny, Xhaka; Iwobi, Nelson (Nelson 64), Welbeck; Aubameyang (Lacazett 71).
Subs: Macey, Holding, Monreal, Wilshere, Ozil, Lacazette, Nketiah.
Saints: McCarthy; Cedric, Stephens, Hoedt, Yoshida (Austin 72), Bertrand (c); Romeu, Hojbjerg, Tadic, Ward-Prowse, Long (Sims 80).
Subs: Forster, Pied, Redmond, Sims, Boufal, Austin, Gabbiadini.