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High-flying Saints leave Wenger's lack of defensive cover exposed once again

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Southampton's Sadio Mane and Arsenal defender Hector Bellerin battle for the ball during their Capital One Cup clash at the Emirates. Photo: Andrew Matthews/PA Wire

Southampton's Sadio Mane and Arsenal defender Hector Bellerin battle for the ball during their Capital One Cup clash at the Emirates. Photo: Andrew Matthews/PA Wire

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Arsenal goalscorer Alexis Sanchez stretches for the ball as Southampton's Jose Fonte gives chase during their Capital One Cup clash at the Emirates. Photo: Andrew Matthews/PA Wire

Arsenal goalscorer Alexis Sanchez stretches for the ball as Southampton's Jose Fonte gives chase during their Capital One Cup clash at the Emirates. Photo: Andrew Matthews/PA Wire

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Southampton's Florin Gardos wins a header during his side's Capital One Cup win over Arsenal at the Emirates. Photo: REUTERS/Stefan Wermuth

Southampton's Florin Gardos wins a header during his side's Capital One Cup win over Arsenal at the Emirates. Photo: REUTERS/Stefan Wermuth

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Southampton's Sadio Mane and Arsenal defender Hector Bellerin battle for the ball during their Capital One Cup clash at the Emirates. Photo: Andrew Matthews/PA Wire

The season is less than six weeks old but the first and arguably best chance for a trophy at Arsenal has already evaporated.

Yes, an early exit from the Capital One Cup does not in itself amount to a crisis but, after defeat in Dortmund last week, Arsene Wenger's failure to add more defensive cover was again exposed and it would be hard even to argue that Southampton's victory was that much of a shock.

With Wenger unwilling to start even one senior defender, a back four with a combined age of just 80 was offered minimal midfield protection by Jack Wilshere, Abou Diaby, Lukas Podolski or Joel Campbell and duly succumbed to Southampton's superior work-rate and cutting edge. From the supposed crisis of the summer, Ronald Koeman has done an excellent job to rebuild Southampton in his own cultured image, with Dusan Tadic and Graziano Pelle already looking like they could be an upgrade on Adam Lallana and Rickie Lambert.

Arsenal's lack of defensive cover forced Wenger to field what is quite possibly the youngest back four of his tenure at the club, with the teenagers Hector Bellerin, Isaac Hayden and Calum Chambers lining up alongside the 23-year-old veteran Francis Coquelin. It allowed Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny the luxury of a night off ahead of the derby against Tottenham on Saturday and there was at least plenty of experience through the rest of the Arsenal team.

The France midfielder Diaby was happily back starting a first-team match some 556 days after his last following a variety of injuries, most recently to his knee. The attacking quality in front of him was also considerable, with Alexis Sanchez given his chance as the main central striker between Campbell and Podolski. Arsenal's difficulty, though, was to direct sufficient service to those players against a virtual full-strength Southampton team.

Having been rested from the 3-0 win against Aston Villa on Saturday, Sanchez began with real purpose and his direct running provoked a mistimed challenge from Jose Fonte. Sanchez quickly picked up the ball himself and curved a brilliantly dipping free kick into the top corner of Fraser Forster's goal.

Having received his work permit at the end of last week, Sadio Mane was making his debut for Southampton and his rapid pace was an immediate source of problems to Arsenal.

The high-quality passing continued from both teams, with Pelle glancing the outside of the crossbar and Podolski wasteful when his shot was saved by Forster.

Southampton had generally held the upper hand and were rewarded shortly before half-time when Arsenal's midfield was slow to close down Nathaniel Clyne after a headed clearance. Clyne took a touch to control the ball and then unleashed a fierce 35-yard shot that, for all its movement, should still have been close enough to the centre of the goal for Ospina to make the save.

Arsenal began the second half with more purpose and aggression, while still struggling to create clear chances. Indeed, Southampton had an excellent chance to go 3-0 ahead. Matt Targett and Sadio Mane combined down the left, with a back-post cross directed along the six-yard box for Steven Davis to force a good save by Ospina. Dusan Tadic also tested Ospina with a curling free-kick. Arsenal were enjoying plenty of the ball inside Southampton's half but the diligence of Schneiderlin, Davis and Victor Wanyama meant that Forster was rarely tested.

Wenger brought on both Santi Cazorla and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain but, with the Southampton team so well drilled in closing down their opponents all the way from Pelle at centre-forward to Jose Fonte in central defence, Arsenal never looked like finding an answer. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Irish Independent