Southampton 1 Arsenal 3
Arsenal are up to eighth in the Premier League with confidence restored, just in time to face old foes Manchester United, after Bukayo Saka helped them complete a revenge mission at Southampton which suggests Mikel Arteta’s side are heading in the right direction after all.
There was extra pressure on Arsenal at St Mary’s after the FA Cup holders were knocked out of the competition at the same venue on Saturday, when Arteta controversially fielded a weakened side.
But with the first-choice youngsters back in harness they continued their march up the table with a 3-1 victory — the goals coming from Nicholas Pepe, Saka and Alexandre Lacazette — that sets the Gunners up nicely for a crack at title-chasing United at the Emirates on Saturday.
Bear in mind this is the Arsenal side which had won just once in league 10 games when they faced Chelsea on St Stephens Day with pressure on Arteta increasing and the team alarmingly close to the relegation zone.
Another 3-1 victory that day, thanks to the energy of young players called up in desperation, has proved to be a huge turning point, and this result on the south coast makes it five wins and one draw in the last six league games — and three away wins in a row for the first time in two years.
It also means that momentum has not, after all, been hindered by an FA Cup setback — despite anger at Arteta’s team selection a few days ago.
The Spaniard was still without talisman Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, for personal reasons, but brought back Saka, Lacazette, David Luiz, Thomas Partey and Emile Smith Rowe, which on paper looked a far stronger line-up.
We’ll never know how Arsenal would have done last weekend if those players had started, but you suspect the holders would still be in the competition today and looking back on an unbeaten run of seven games, given the extra energy and quality they found a few days later.
They arrived back on the south coast with a point to prove following half-hearted performance last time out and were vastly improved.
Southampton’s teamsheet gave the Spaniard hope straight away.
They were without both first choice fullbacks, Kyle Water-Peters and Ryan Bertrand, because of injury and suspension, and needed academy product Jake Vokins to fill in on the left.
Arsenal were almost ahead after only a minute when Lacazette found himself clean through, only to be denied by goalkeeper Alex McCarthy and that was the first action of what became a frenetic night.
Just two minutes later a creative corner by set-piece specialist James Ward-Prowse was delivered to the edge of the area where the unmarked Stuart Armstrong scored with a perfectly placed first-time shot for 1-0.
Arsenal were level after eight minutes when Granit Xhaka set up Nicholas Pepe to cut inside and score from the left flank, reward for the visiting team winning the ball back high up the pitch — something they couldn’t manage on Saturday.
That was Pepe’s sixth goal of the season and perhaps a sign that the 25-year-old is finally showing the form that has been missing since signing in a big-money move from Lille in August 2019.
Che Adams went close to 2-1 for Southampton, his header well saved by Bernd Leno, but Arsenal were next to score after 39 minutes. Lacazette played Saka through and McCarthy, way out of his area, could do nothing as the youngster skipped past him and rolled the ball home expertly for his fourth goal in his last six starts. Another example of how important youth has been in Arsenal’s revival.
Saka was also the creator for goal number three, sending a perfect low cross for Lacazette to score at the far post after Cedric had spread the play with a wonderful long-distance pass.
The only worry for Arsenal was the sight of Smith Rowe leaving the field with an injury, because he too is vital to their hopes. The Gunners have never lost in 17 games in which the 20-year-old has started, and they will need him on Saturday. But things are certainly looking up.
SOUTHAMPTON: McCarthy 6, Valery 6, Bednarek 7, Vokins 6 (Redmond 67); Armstrong 7, Diallo 6, Ward-Prowse 7, Walcott 5 (N’Lundulu 74; 5); Adams 7, Ings 6 (Watts 74; 5).
ARSENAL: Leno 6, Bellerin 6, Holding 6, David Luiz 6, Soares 8; Partey 6 (Elneny 78; 6), Xhaka 7; Pepe 7 (Willock 90), Smith-Rowe 7 (Willian 72), Saka 8; Lacazette 8.
Referee: Kevin Friend.