The Gunners’ 22-game unbeaten run came to an end as their depleted defence was exposed by a rejuvenated Southampton side
It was Claudio Ranieri who earned the famous nickname ‘the Tinkerman’ after constantly changing his tactics when he was manager of Chelsea.
Arsenal head coach Unai Emery has embarked on a similar path this season, making various tactical changes and deploying players in unorthodox positions as he gets to know his new squad.
Against Southampton, the Spaniard was forced to be inventive due to the suspensions of Sokratis Papastathopoulos and Shkodran Mustafi and the injury to Rob Holding. Those defensive absences called for Granit Xhaka to start at left-back – a position he had played in earlier this season when Sead Kolasinac and Nacho Monreal were unavailable.
Emery began the game at St Mary’s with three in defence but quickly found out that it wasn’t working. Alex Iwobi was a frustrated figure as he was forced to drop deep and collect the ball after being man-marked by Southampton’s centre back Jan Bednarek.
Southampton were the lowest scoring team in the league before Sunday’s meeting on the south coast, but it didn’t take long for Danny Ings to head home with Laurent Koscielny unable to deal with the cross from Matt Targett.
A new-found intensity from the Saints could be seen under new manager Ralph Hasenhuttl and it was clear the German’s arrival was having a big effect on his team’s ability to create chances in the final third.
Henrikh Mkhitaryan, a player who had received criticism recently for his lack of impact since arriving in January, headed in the equaliser from Nacho Monreal’s cross. But Ings got his second just minutes later, finishing well after Nathan Redmond had found him with another pin-point cross.
Half-time changes were made once again by Emery, although he was forced into bringing the injured Hector Bellerin off – replacing him with Alexandre Lacazette. The Frenchman made an immediate contribution for Arsenal’s equaliser as Matteo Guendouzi harried the opposition in midfield, before picking out Lacazette who found Mkhitaryan for a deflected effort past Alex McCarthy. It was the Armenian’s first brace for Arsenal.
On the grand scheme of things, Arsenal would have probably been content to settle for a point from a scrappy game against fired-up opponents. But their depleted defence and inability to see the game out saw them concede again with just five minutes remaining.
Shane Long sent in a cross towards Charlie Austin, only for Bernd Leno to come for the ball and miss it. This gifted Austin the simple task of turning into an open goal at the back post. Arsenal have now conceded a worrying 23 Premier League goals this season – the same amount as relegation-threatened Crystal Palace, and more than Newcastle, Wolves and Leicester.
While Arsenal had the opportunity to extend their unbeaten run to 23 games, they will be left rueing a game which they didn’t do enough to win.
An injury for Bellerin adds to Emery’s defensive worries ahead of a packed Christmas schedule, with Leno gifting the Saints a present of his own after the late winner from Austin.
The Gunners face Spurs in a Carabao Cup semi-final on Wednesday before games against Burnley, Brighton, Liverpool in the space of seven days.
It could be a case of too many matches in quick succession as the injuries pile up and Arsenal struggle to take games by the scruff of the neck in the first half. December will almost certainly be the true test of this team’s character.