A last minute Santi Cazorla penalty gave Arsenal a 2-1 win after Laurent Koscielny's excellent overhead kick had leveled the score in the first half. Southampton opened the scoring when Petr Cech tipped Dusan Tadic's free kick onto the bar only for it to bounce in off his back.
While this result is the only thing that will matter come the end of the season the performance was largely disappointing and highlighted some of the longstanding tactical issues we've had in the recent past. Against a Southampton side defending deep with a midfield bank of five in front of a back four we failed to translate possession dominance into goal scoring chances. When we did get into decent scoring positions our finishing was poor. We had 57% possession but our two goals were our only two shots on target. In other words our two goals came from a moment of brilliance from our center back and a controversial penalty. That's not good enough for a side with ambitions of challenging for the title and is particularly concerning on a day when Manchester City, Tottenham and Liverpool were all excellent.
Claude Puel started with the same diamond 4-4-2 shape Southampton have used in all of their matches this season. Jay Rodriguez was rewarded for his equalizer against Sunderland with a start up front alongside Nathan Redmond. Tadic played at the tip of the diamond with Ben Davis and Jordi Clasie either side of Oriol Romeu at the base of the diamond. Ryan Bertrand returned from injury to start at left back while Cedric Soares maintained his starting spot at right back. Virgil van Dijk and Jose Fonte partnered at center back with Fraser Forster in goal.
Arsene Wenger gave debuts to our two new signings Mustafi and Lucas Perez. Xhaka, who was red carded for Switzerland during the international break, was left on the bench as Coquelin came in to partner Santi Cazorla in the double pivot. Alexis and Giroud were both left on the bench with a difficult Champions League game against PSG in the Park des Princes looming Tuesday. Walcott kept his spot wide on the right, Oxlade-Chamberlain played wide on the left. Ozil played in his usual #10 role behind Perez.
I mentioned in my scouting report for this match that I’d be slightly surprised if Puel stuck with the narrow diamond 4-4-2 his used in every match so far this season because I thought we’d overwhelm them countering in the channels. Puel did in fact stat the match with his preferred formation.
Southampton controlled possession in the early proceedings as we dropped into banks of four in our own half rather than pressing them high up the pitch. They completed 100 passes in the opening 20 minutes to our 88. I thought that dropping into banks of four and inviting Southampton forward was a smart tactic. With their narrow midfield diamond, Puel’s sides get their attacking width from the fullbacks pushing high up the pitch. I thought that by allowing them to have possession and inviting them forward we’d open up space down the channels that Walcott and Oxlade-Chamberlain could exploit on the counter with their pace.
However the approach didn’t work. We couldn’t get tight enough to them in midfield and they used their numerical advantage to pass around us with relative ease. Redmond and Tadic popped up into the space between our center backs and holding center midfielders where they could turn and run at our back four. It was good combination play between Tadic and Redmond that resulted in the free kick Southampton scored their opener from.
When we did win the ball back there were good opportunities to counter but our passing was frustratingly sloppy. Time and again our initial outlet pass was poor and we gave possession back to them too easily.
After they got the goal Southampton retreated and put the onus on us to control possession and break down a crowded defense. Their shape became 4-5-1 defensively. Redmond and Shane Long, who replaced Jay Rodriguez at halftime, dropped into the right and left channels respectively to form a midfield bank of five, leaving Tadic highest up the pitch. Romeu occupied the space in between the center backs and their other two central midfielders Clasie and Davis where Ozil is so threatening. Puel’s side deserves credit for that compact defensive shape and he deserves credit for employing that tactic. We labored in possession to find the gaps to get the ball into decent attacking positions.
The two screen shots below show Southampton’s solid defensive shape. With Romeu sitting just in front of the back four there is no space between the lines for Ozil to drift into. When the ball is in wide areas they shift well and close down any potential forward passing lanes. Whereas our midfield bank of four left gaps between the defense and midfield, their midfield five meant there was far less space between the lines for us to move into.
Once Puel’s side began defending deep having Oxlade-Chamberlain and Walcott on the pitch at the same time became a real hindrance. Both players are at their best when the game is open and they have space to run into with their pace. Neither are great on the ball in compact spaces and neither have the creativity or passing ability to unlock crowded defenses. I thought Theo played all right but I’m always amazed at how the more we have the ball, the more uninvolved he seems to become. He completed just 13 passes. On the other side of the pitch Oxlade-Chambrlain had a bit of a disaster, giving away possession inexplicably on too many occasions. I’m not sure you can continue to play him.
Unsurprisingly we looked much better when Alexis came on. It’s no surprise that Ozil was at his most threatening once the Chilean was introduced. They are of course our two most talented attacking players but the two also seem to have a unique understanding of one another’s movement. Just six minutes after Alexis was brought on Ozil moved wide to the left channel to collect a pass from Coquelin. He received the pass facing the touchline with his back to the field so he couldn’t see any of his teammates behind him. Alexis burst forward from an inside left position, seemingly knowing what Ozil would do next. Ozil turned brilliantly and cut a pass forward for Alexis through on goal. Again our finishing was poor- Alexis fired his effort over the bar- but it was a better chance than we had managed before the Chilean’s introduction.
Still no alternate attacking approach
Frustratingly, we have only one attacking approach- patient, short passing combinations. When defenses become crowed and compact that combination play becomes harder to pull off. You’ll never see us throw on two strikers and go more direct hitting crosses into the box from wide areas. Our opposition knows this and are generally happy to give us the ball while we grow more and more frustrated trying to pick our way through compact spaces. On the rare occasions we did alter our approach and go slightly more direct we caused Southampton problems. On one occasion Ozil played Cazorla wide on the left touchline where Cazorla hit a perfectly weighted early cross into the box. Giroud was in front of the front post and wasn’t quite able to redirect the cross on target but it showed the Southampton center backs a different look. On the other occasion Giroud took a chance and made a run in behind the Southampton back four. Mustafi lofted a pass over the top and Fonte brought down Giroud for the winning penalty.
While I thought Perez played decently enough for his debut, all of his movement was back towards the ball. He didn’t make many runs behind van Dijk and Fonte to stretch the defense. When Giroud came on he did well to make those more vertical runs behind the defense, slightly surprising given that he typically plays more with his back to goal.
A good result from a poor performance. The optimistic outlook on this match is we found a way to get the three points despite not being at our best. But the truth is we were fortunate. The penalty on Fonte could easily not have been given. Hopefully we can put in a more impressive display in Paris Tuesday.