Thursday 23 February 2017

First-half goals dump Arsenal out as Saints go marching on

Arsenal 0 Southampton 2

Jeremy Wilson

Wenger: Frustrating night. Photo: Andrew Couldridge/Action Images via Reuters
Wenger: Frustrating night. Photo: Andrew Couldridge/Action Images via Reuters

If this is to be Arsene Wenger's last season at Arsenal, the League Cup will remain the one domestic prize to have always eluded him in England.

He has won the Premier League and FA Cup a combined nine times but, even despite fielding a team with plenty of senior international quality, his team were deservedly beaten here by a similarly weakened Southampton, who are themselves also competing across three fronts.

First-half goals by Jordy Clasie and Ryan Bertrand clinched Southampton's place in a first League Cup semi-final for 30 years and, with their fans chanting for Wembley, manager Claude Puel oversaw another performance that will further cement his authority following Sunday's win over Everton.

For Wenger, a first defeat in 19 games will be mitigated by the League Cup's very clear status as fourth in his priority list but there were still worrying elements to the performance, notably the lack of creativity with Lucas Perez up front.

Only Mohamed Elneny started from the Arsenal team who had beaten Bournemouth 3-1 on Sunday but the strength in depth that is also evident now in the Southampton squad was highlighted by manager Puel making only two fewer changes and still fielding a team of considerable quality.

Indeed, with Harrison Reed sitting in front of the back four and soon linking fluently with Clasie and Steven Davis, Southampton took an immediate hold of possession. Arsenal had begun with Francis Coquelin and Elneny in central midfield, allowing Aaron Ramsey to begin in the sort of free role that he craves. Perez had also returned to the starting team for the first time since the win over Reading in the previous round but, with their £17m striker struggling to link the play, Arsenal's game lacked its usual fluency.

Arsenal's Jeff Reine-Adelaide (centre) battles for the ball with Southampton's Jordy Clasie (left) and Southampton's Maya Yoshida (right). Photo: Nick Potts/PA Wire.
Arsenal's Jeff Reine-Adelaide (centre) battles for the ball with Southampton's Jordy Clasie (left) and Southampton's Maya Yoshida (right). Photo: Nick Potts/PA Wire.

Southampton soon took advantage, with Maya Yoshida spraying a wonderful cross-field pass to Bertrand down the left. The former Chelsea full-back then fed Sofiane Bofal, whose attempted shot was blocked by Rob Holding but fell for Clasie on the edge of the penalty area. The midfielder then smashed a wonderfully timed strike past Emiliano Martinez.

Arsenal's response involved taking a much firmer grip of possession but still they struggled to create actual clear chances. Southampton were seeing less of the ball but remained more incisive when they did seize possession. The pressing of Reed forced a mistake by Davis, who released Boufal and his cross then found Bertrand, who had cut inside and produced a wonderfully precise finish beyond Martinez.

Arsenal were forced to make their first change even before half-time when Elneny came off and the arrival of Granit Xhaka did make some of their passing rather more penetrating. Alex Iwobi and Xhaka then linked up and helped create a chance for Ramsey, but he shot weakly over the crossbar. Xhaka also had a shot from the edge of the area well saved by Fraser Forster.

Southampton, though, maintained their threat on the counter-attack, with Shane Long forcing a diving save by Martinez and then Boufal, who was making only his third start for the club, beating the Arsenal keeper but dragging his shot wide.

Arsenal's Gabriel Paulista (left) and Southampton's Shane Long (right) battle for the ball. Photo: Nick Potts/PA Wire.
Arsenal's Gabriel Paulista (left) and Southampton's Shane Long (right) battle for the ball. Photo: Nick Potts/PA Wire.

Wenger responded to his team's absence of creativity by bringing on Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Ainsley Maitland-Niles but, with the likes of Mesut Ozil, Alexis Sanchez, Olivier Giroud and Theo Walcott given the night off, the improvement was limited. Oxlade-Chamberlain did inject a bit of pace but, when he did get a sight of goal, he shot over.

Coquelin also drilled an effort wide while Arsenal appealed for a penalty when Ramsey went down, but little was going right for them.

A semi-final draw against Liverpool may feel like scant reward for Southampton but, with more performances like this, they'll fear nobody. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Telegraph.co.uk

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