Despite a run of seven consecutive wins prior to last night’s match, Arsenal’s 2-2 draw with Southampton did not come as a huge shock. Although they have done what they have had to in recent weeks, the signs that this was a team who’s title challenge is faltering have all been there. Encounters with West Ham United and Cardiff ended with the Gunners narrowly snatching victory in the dying moments, whilst away wins at Newcastle and Aston Villa required the type of desperate clinging on to withstand a late barrage more akin to a team fighting relegation than one challenging for the title. In addition to this, Arsene Wenger’s team have also been starting games very slowly and quite often it has taken until the second half for them to really get into their stride and secure the three points. Some pundits may argue that grinding out results whilst not playing particularly well is the mark of champions, but Arsenal’s crawl towards the finish line stands in stark contrast to the ominous way Manchester City seem to be cantering towards that same line.
Last night this tendency to start slowly finally caught up with them as Southampton stormed into a one goal lead by half time, which could easily have been more. Arsenal were sloppy in possession, slow to break forward and when they did they looked bereft of ideas in the final third. However, the main problem was a notable lack of energy in the midfield area that has drawn so much praise this season. The central midfield pairing of Mikel Arteta and Mathieu Flamini were lacklustre and struggled to get a foothold in a first half that largely passed them by as their passivity, both going forward and defensively, enabled the Saints lively midfield to dominate the game. They were an on the field example of a team that is running out of steam. If Arsenal are to sustain their challenge these two cannot start together again. The youthful exuberance and dynamism, so abundant in Southampton’s performance, was clearly lacking with the absence of Aaron Ramsey and Jack Wilshere in the Arsenal midfield. Injuries to these two left Wenger with little other option, and the consequent selection of Arteta and Flamini together in midfield clearly suggests this may be a campaign that is starting to take its toll on a thin Arsenal squad, as many pundits have suggested would happen. Nowhere was this fatigue more evident than in Flamini’s frustrated two footed lunge on Morgan Schneiderlin late on, that earned him a straight red card and a 4 match ban.
There were positives to take from the game for Arsenal, most notably that Olivier Giroud, who again found the net with a Thierry Henry-esque flick, seems to have rediscovered his goal scoring touch after enduring a somewhat barren spell in recent months. Whether he can turn this into a consistent goal threat for the remainder of the season remains to be seen, but his form will be vital if Arsenal are to maintain ground at the top of the league. The opening period of the second half, in which Arsenal scored both their goals, showed what this team is capable of when they play at their devastating, attacking best but, just as in the first half, they failed to introduce any sustained intensity to their game and the hosts quickly re-established parity, with the Gunners tiredness again coming to the fore. This is a squad that needs reinforcements but if, as he continues to state, Wenger will make no moves in the transfer window he must make better use of his squad. Where is the logic in bringing on one of your highest paid players in Lukas Podolski in the 89th minute? The German needs to play more games.
Yet this is not to take anything away from the Saints, who outplayed the best team of the last 12 months in the Premier League and deserved more than a point for their performance. They are a credit to English football, and in captain and goalscorer Adam Lallana they have a player who simply must start for England in Brazil this summer. After their blistering start to the season, their campaign has tailed off somewhat since the start of December but this may be the performance to give it new life. Previous talk of a top four finish has rightly disappeared but there is no reason why they cannot claim a top 8 finish and crown their season off with an FA Cup final.
Next up for Arsenal is a home game against Crystal Palace that now takes on massive importance. They need to produce a performance and result worthy of a title winning side against a team that are steadily improving under the management of Tony Pulis. It is past time that Arsenal sent out a statement with regards to their title ambitions with a resounding victory. If they can do that and get back on track, this will give them much needed confidence before the big games start in February and March.