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Arsenal serve up some home cooked revenge, topple Southampton

statistics analysis, Arsenal Southampton Premier League Tactics

The sun was shining as bright as it has in a long while on Sunday as Arsenal welcomed Southampton to the Emirates Stadium for their Premier League clash, a rematch of the disappointing 3-2 loss in December. The Gunners came flying off the blocks in the first half, gaining a two-goal advantage that would prove more than enough to put away the Saints on the day. A scoreless second half saw the match end 2-0 to the Arsenal, their second win in as many tries and good enough to see them climb into the top four, with 11 games yet to run on the 2018/19 season. 

Home cooked revenge

The last time Arsenal and Southampton met, the Gunners were stunned by a rejuvenated Saints side that had recently come under the new leadership of Ralph Hasenhuttl. Whether it was just one of those days where nothing seemed to go right, or if Unai Emery and his coaching staff had underestimated the speed with which Hasenhuttl would be able to implement the core tenants of his footballing philosophy, Arsenal seemed wholly unprepared for the team they faced in mid-December, ending their 22-match unbeaten run in the process. Since then, both teams have suffered from inconsistent performances as Arsenal have tried to break into the top four and Southampton have been desperately trying to pull their way out of the relegation places.

Sunday’s rematch was likely far more the way Emery had envisioned, however, as the Gunners wrested the initiative away from the visitors early, refusing to give it back. Just three days removed from a badly-needed victory in the Europa League, Arsenal nevertheless looked the fresher, sharper side, penetrating deep and often into the Saints’ end. Arsenal again went with a 4-2-3-1, similar to what they had deployed with success against BATE Borisov on Thursday, and dominated nearly two-thirds of possession while comfortably dictating the tempo of the match. The players showed signs that the confidence is finally returning to the dressing room, and the execution was crisper and more threatening than we have seen from this team throughout 2019. 

Leno impressive in victory

Bernd Leno has had something of an enigmatic first season at the Emirates Stadium since arriving this past summer in a £25 million deal from Bayer Leverkusen. Despite having earned only his second clean sheet of the Premier League season, Leno has been far more impressive at times than that figure might suggest, making over three saves per match with a success rate of 70.53% behind a sometimes suspect defence. Perhaps even more importantly, his comfort on the ball and his cool demeanour under pressure have helped Emery implement his philosophy of playing out from the back with more success than had been witnessed with Petr Cech in goal. 

He was superb in the victory despite being called on infrequently throughout the match as Arsenal controlled the majority of open play. However, he was there when called upon, including two stellar reaction saves that prevented Southampton from crawling back into the match while Arsenal were failing to extend the lead in the second half. 

Much was made of Leno’s apparent lack of progression in his final few seasons at Leverkusen, as the world-class promise, he tantalised fans within his first season with the first team seemed to be fading away as his play plateaued between 2015 and 2018. However, his move to Arsenal seems to have reinvigorated the German shot-stopper, who has become ever more confident patrolling the penalty area, despite the lack of solidity in front of him. He has become far better at judging the path of – and coming for – balls into his box, and some credit here should go to Goalkeepers Coach Sal Bibbo, who can be seen working intensely with his charges in training. The signs are positive that the 26-year-old will continue to stake his claim on the number one shirt in North London, and we can only hope his trajectory continues through the end of the season.

Xhaka excels despite trademark error

Speaking of 26-year-old players who appear to be coming into their own in recent weeks, Granit Xhaka once again put in a near flawless performance in Sunday’s victory. In spite of all the criticism levelled at him in his three seasons at the club, the Swiss international remains one of the few locks in Emery’s starting XIs when fit this season, and he finally appears to be getting some of the credit he deserves. 

He was the player tasked most frequently with progressing his team into the final third against Southampton, and the Saints made a grave error in allowing him the time and space to do so. Xhaka completed over 90% of his passes, including two key passes in his 93 touches, and was on the money with nine of 10 attempted long balls. He even challenged goalkeeper Angus Gunn with two of his trademark thundering shots from distance, and he even used his much weaker right foot in a more natural way than we have become accustomed to in his time at the club. 

However, as is always a concern with Xhaka, his match was not without its tense moments. He nearly erased all of his good work on Sunday with a far-too-casual pass across the goal mouth that was intercepted by James Ward-Prowse and could have been converted into an easy Southampton goal had the midfielder managed to find the mark with his shot. It is moments like these that have many still sceptical of his long term value to the club, and they are avoidable errors he must cut out of his game once and for all if he is to be considered one of the best midfielders in the Premier League. One mistake in an otherwise stellar performance shouldn’t be enough to ruin his best work. But in spite of his recent improvements at the heart of this Arsenal team, there are some who will simply never trust him completely.

One better than two?

Aside from the decision to revert back to 4-2-3-1 these last two matches, perhaps the most curious recent development has been Emery’s decision to forgo the two striker formations that he has favoured for much of this season. His thinking is likely rooted in an attempt to promote more creativity around the box and defensive stability without the ball by deploying more natural creative players on the flanks. Alex Iwobi and Henrikh Mkhitaryan have been handed starts in each of the last two matches, and their presence has changed the dynamic of the Arsenal attack. Sacrificing the outright goalscoring ability of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang on Sunday for the direct runs and high energy of the pair allowed for a far more balanced approach to creating chances as Arsenal got deep into the Southampton end.

Aubameyang did eventually find his way into the action as Iwobi went down with a minor knock late in proceedings, but Emery may have seen enough to persist with this approach of using one of Lacazette or Aubameyang as a central striker. Arsenal have hardly struggled for goals this season with both strikers enjoying fine runs of form, but chance creation has been a major concern for Emery, and this could be his latest idea in a bid to rectify that.

The busy road ahead

Having netted two wins in a four-day span, Arsenal have done a good job diffusing some of the tension around the team, and the calls for Emery’s job following the embarrassing first-leg defeat to BATE Borisov have faded again into the background. While victories over the Belarusian champions and a relegation battling Southampton are hardly indicative of a sudden breakthrough here in Emery’s first season at the helm, they should provide a welcome confidence boost heading into what could be the most vital stretch of games of the season if Arsenal are to maintain their hopes of re-entry into the Champions League.

Arsenal will now embark on a run of five matches in a little over two weeks, culminating in the second leg of their round of 16 clash with Stade Rennais in the Europa League. With matches against hated rivals, Tottenham and Manchester United set to take place in that span, we should get a better indication of whether this recent uptick in performance is a sign of things to come, or if it has merely been a product of lacklustre competition. Wins in those two matches could go a long way towards sealing Arsenal’s top four fate, as well as ensuring that Tottenham’s title challenge is killed off for good. The coaches and players alike will be anxious to prove there is progress being made this season, and that Emery’s is a project worth investing in and pursuing long term. 

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