Thursday 26 April 2018

Gunners keep top four hopes alive

Southampton 0-2 Arsenal

Arsenal's Olivier Giroud heads in his sides second goal. Photo: Reuters
Arsenal's Olivier Giroud heads in his sides second goal. Photo: Reuters

Jeremy Wilson

The debate surrounding Arsene Wenger remains fevered, and the outspoken strength of his pre-match refusal to compromise on his managerial style was striking, but the only answer that ever really matters is out on the pitch.

And, after the most torrid period of Wenger's career, the mini-recovery continues. It might yet be too late to salvage a proud record of 20 straight finishes in the top four of the Premier League but this victory has lifted Arsenal above Manchester United into fifth and at least in contention again for a Champions League place.

They could move to within a point of Liverpool should they beat Stoke City on Saturday.

The theme of My Way booming out over the St Mary's public address system felt strangely appropriate in the seconds leading up to kick-off following Wenger's comments on Tuesday about how he will not stay at Arsenal if there is any dilution of his powers.

But, for all his reluctance to change what happens off the pitch, he is sticking with something different on it.

The new 3-4-2-1 formation that had helped Arsenal record four wins in five games was again evident, with Shkodran Mustafi coming straight back into the centre of defence amid a calf injury to captain Laurent Koscielny.

Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger. Photo: Reuters
Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger. Photo: Reuters

Arsenal were otherwise unchanged from the team who beat United 2-0 on Sunday, and they looked weary, again struggling to do much with their abundant possession.

They weren't helped by the loss of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain to injury, and the best first-half chances all fell to Southampton.

James Ward-Prowse crossed accurately into Arsenal's penalty area, only for the ball to somehow avoid all of his waiting team-mates.

Space

Arsenal's Alexis Sanchez celebrates scoring their first goal. Photo: Reuters
Arsenal's Alexis Sanchez celebrates scoring their first goal. Photo: Reuters

Manolo Gabbiadini did then find space following a clever pass by Dusan Tadic but his low shot was well blocked by Petr Cech. Gabbiadini then sent a free-kick curling narrowly wide.

Arsenal were continuing to look most threatening whenever they got their wing-backs attacking the areas behind Southampton's full-backs.

Hector Bellerin, on for Oxlade-Chamberlain, again found space behind Ryan Bertrand and his cross was met by Aaron Ramsey, whose shot was aimed wide but almost still turned in by Welbeck.

It signalled a tangible lifting of the pace by Arsenal as Granit Xhaka took hold of the game in central midfield.

Arsenal's threat also became more varied. Ramsey was breaking forward in support of Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez who, having struggled to trouble Jack Stephens or Maya Yoshida during the first half, were growing in influence.

Ozil threaded a pass of trademark precision to Sanchez, who turned brilliantly to leave both Stephens and Yoshida flailing before aiming his finish back inside Fraser Forster.

Arsenal went immediately for a second, as Xhaka forced a parried save of Forster that only just evaded Arsenal's strikers.

Sofiane Boufal was introduced by Southampton and, while he did cause Arsenal a fleeting moment of concern when he dribbled into space on the edge of the penalty area, his finish was wayward. Wenger also varied his attack with the introduction of Olivier Giroud in place of Welbeck and was rewarded.

Sanchez had spotted another run into Southampton's area by Ramsey, who showed impressive vision to square the ball back across the six-yard box for Giroud. The Frenchman had only been on the pitch for three minutes but duly maintained his impressive goals-to-minutes ratio this season by heading the ball down beneath Forster. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Irish Independent

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