Southampton 2 Arsenal 0
Two steps forward, one step back has become the norm at Arsenal these days and Wojciech Szczesny ensured it would be business as usual for Arsene Wenger in the new year.
The Arsenal keeper contributed two calamitous mistakes that gifted Southampton the chance to establish a two-goal lead and claim a victory that ultimately was alarmingly comfortable from Wenger’s point of view.
The outcome was that Southampton struck a blow in the increasingly crowded battle for a top four place, moving three points clear of an Arsenal side who dropped to sixth after Tottenham’s stunning 5-3 win over Chelsea in the late kick-off.
Southampton manager Ronald Koeman is convinced his side have the capacity to sustain their challenge for a top four finish and if future opponents are half as generous as Arsenal, they will achieve their aim with plenty of room to spare.
Szczesny’s first error was to race off his line and fail to win the ball on the left hand edge of his penalty area. Stranded in no man’s land, the keeper was unable to prevent Sadio Mane’s admittedly excellent finish from the tightest of angles from giving the home side a 34th minute lead.
Then, with Arsenal looking for a way back into the game in early stages of the second half, the keeper got in a terrible mix-up with right-back Mathieu Debuchy and ended up hacking the ball tamely to Dusan Tadic who gratefully accepted the opportunity to add a 56th minute second.
Koeman summed things up accurately enough.
“I don’t like to talk about the mistakes of the opponent, because that can be disrespectful,” said the manager. “But the second was maybe a new year present.”
It’s probably a good job Wenger didn’t hear the remark.
The Arsenal manager was visibly fuming at Szczesny’s first error, by the time of the second, disbelief had turned into resignation.
Having come into the game as the only one of the top six to have won their opening two holiday games, this was a chance for Arsenal’s season to gather momentum.
Instead, the afternoon ended with another inquest and what appeared to be latest example of supporter dissent when a fan was arrested after leaping from the crowd and remonstrating in front of the dugouts.
“Every time we look like we can get on a run, we have a hiccup,” said Wenger. “We have to learn from that very quickly because we will need that.
“Today more than the position in the league, my main concern is that it was a game that was winnable that we lost, more than fourth place. Because we need to be consistent defensively from the start.”
Wenger resisted any urge to single Szczesny out for criticism but his insistence that “I don’t want to talk about him” spoke volumes.
David Ospina will start Sunday’s FA Cup tie against Hull City and can prepare himself for an extended run in the side if he impresses.
For Arsenal, their FA Cup defence has assumed even greater significance with the competition once again offering their best chance of success this season.
Prior to Mane’s opening goal, Arsenal appeared to have settled into the game but from the moment Mane out-paced Laurent Koscielny and panicked Szczesny, a home win always appeared likely.
Southampton keeper Fraser Forster twice saved well from Alexis Sanchez but Arsenal were vulnerable to Southampton’s attacking threat and were undone for a second time after Steve Davis latched onto Victor Wanyama’s long ball and drilled in the cross that prompted a second mix up.
“This result show we can beat a big team,” said Koeman. “The draw against Chelsea was important, after that the players had the belief to win something.
“I don’t say now after this we have more possibilities to stay high but I believe and the belief was there before. We had a fantastic run, we didn’t make parties, we didn’t make troubles after five defeats. You need the confidence to play good football. Every game you have to be prepared because every game is difficult.”
SOUTHAMPTON (4-4-2): Forster 8; Alderweireld 7, Fonte 7, Gardos 7 (Yoshida 71,6), Bertrand 6; S Davis 8, Wanyama 7, Ward-Prowse 7, Tadic 9 (Long 83,6); Pelle 7, Mane 8 (Reed 41, 6).
ARSENAL (4-2-3-1): Szczesny 3; Debuchy 6 (Akpom 83, 6), Mertesacker 5, Koscielny 6, Gibbs 6; Coquelin 5, Chambers 6 (Walcott 60,6); Rosicky 5, Cazorla 7, Oxlade-Chamberlain 6; Sanchez 7.
Referee: C Pawson.
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