The Arsenal manager rested seven of the team that defeated CSKA Moscow in midweek Europa League action, with this Thursday’s second leg in mind.
But it so nearly backfired against a revved-up Southampton side desperately battling against relegation. They first took the lead and then threatened to win the match after coming back from 2-1 down only to succumb to a late Danny Welbeck winning header.
The Welbeck goal was his second of the match and, despite shooting over from a yard out, he also set-up Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang to score in possibly his best ever Arsenal performance. It has been a long time coming.
Wenger said afterwards: “Danny Welbeck is getting sharper. He has been out for a while. Now he comes slowly back to his best.
“I’m personally very happy and pleased for him because this guy has gone through some difficult times. I have seen him behave well when it was really tough. He deserves everything he gets.”
Wenger also praised Welbeck’s considerable defensive contribution and then revealed more of what the England striker has endured since his move from Manchester United nearly four years ago.
“He had every reason to feel sorry for himself and think this mountain is too big to climb.
“He had the right knee, the left knee, a year out both times, but he worked hard, which is unnoticed by everybody. People were questioning if he’d come back or not. That is the most difficult test for any sportsperson. I believe what he has done is exceptional.”
Wenger will need Welbeck at his best with Henrikh Mkhitaryan indefinitely injured and fellow winter signing Aubameyang cup-tied for the Europa League, Arsenal’s only remaining route to Champions League qualification.
Arsenal were as characteristically shaky at the back against the Saints as they were enterprising going forward and Wenger joked: “I must say when you come to the Emirates, you see football and you see goals. That’s what you want to give to our fans.”
Southampton set their team up to defend with five men at the back and four in midfield, but Arsenal lacked the wit to make any impression early on and it was Mark Hughes’ side that took a shock early lead.
If the Arsenal defence looked sleepy at the start, they were comatose when Shane Long took advantage of a communication breakdown between Petr Cech and Shkodran Mustafi, who left the ball for each other only to allow the 31-year-old from Gortnahoe score only his second goal in 40 games for the club.
But just when the Arenal fans were in danger of losing the plot like their defence, the forwards conjured up a goal of footballing beauty 10 minutes later.
An intricate quick-fire passing movement started with eventual goalscorer Aubameyang and then Alex Iwobi and Welbeck before the club record signing from Borussia Dortmund made it six in eight matches since his January move.
The far from prolific Welbeck then popped up with his first league goal since September, ending a powerful run and right foot shot that flew in via a huge deflection off Maya Yoshida.
Early in the second half, Mohammed Elneny cleared off the line from a Wesley Hoedt header as Southampton probed for an equaliser.
Long then had an effort brilliantly saved and a ‘goal’ disallowed for offside, prompting Wenger to send on Jack Wilshere for young midfielder Reiss Nelson.
Hughes hauled off Yoshida for striker Austin and he equalised within a minute, finishing off a brilliant dancing run from Cedric Soares with his fourth goal in four games against Arsenal.
Welbeck then scooped over the bar from a yard out as Arsenal pressed for a winner.
But the England striker recovered his composure to head in a perfectly weighted Iwobi cross with nine minutes to go.
A dramatic and frantic finale ensued with Southampton’s Jack Stephens and Arsenal’s Elneny both shown straight red cards for violent conduct.
The Southampton man’s dismissal was for knocking Wilshere on the deck after his shirt had been relentlessly pulled while Elneny’s ‘raised hand’ dismissal seems worth an appeal.
Hughes claimed both red cards were correct and Wilshere should have gone too.
Cech 5; Bellerin 5 (Holding 74, 6), Mustafi 5, Chambers 5, Kolasinac 6; Elneny 7, Xhaka 6; Iwobi 7, Nelson 6 (Wilshere 64, 5), Welbeck 7; Aubameyang 7 (Lacazette 71, 6).
Macey, Ozil, Monreal, Nketiah.
McCarthy 7; Soares 7, Stephens 5, Hoedt 6, Yoshida 5 (Austin 72, 7), Bertrand 5; Ward-Prowse 6, Hojbjerg 5, Romeu 5, Tadic 6; Long 7 (Sims 80, 6).
Forster, Boufal, Gabbiadini, Redmond, Pied.
Andre Marriner 4