Arsenal cruised to a victory against a side that has taken more than a few vital points, and a shot at a trophy, away from Arsenal over the past few seasons. The Saints potentially suffering from a hangover after their huge EFL semifinal victory over Liverpool, made 9 changes and, while Arsenal also rotated heavily, a few were players just coming back from injury. In the end, 5-0 seemed about right from a dominant Gunner performance.
Three thoughts on game:
1. Welbeck Impresses: the great tragedy of Welbeck’s injury almost a year ago was that he seemed to have finally found a finishing touch that had eluded him for much of his career. In just his second appearance, and first start, since returning, Welbeck showed that eye for the goal might have remained throughout his months of recovery away from the pitch. His two goals in the first 22 minutes were both fine finishes that showed great poise.
The first, in the 15th minute, was started by a dynamic Maitland-Niles, who pushed the ball forward to Perez. The Spaniard sent in a fine one-touch through ball to a charging Welbeck, who looked up, waited for the keeper to charger and then sent a lofted toe poke over him and into the roof of the net. The second, 7 minutes later, involved an excellent takedown of a long, over-the-top pass from Ox, a move to his left and then a finely placed finish between keeper and defender. In fact, Arsenal were quite direct throughout, a strategy one doesn’t often see from a Wenger side.
For Arsenal’s third, Welbeck showed his pace, catching up to a Perez pass a little too long and cutting it back for Walcott to finish (35’). Arsenal’s fourth came after his replacement, Sanchez, assisted Walcott for his second of the evening. The Southampton product completed his hat trick in the 84th, again assisted from Sanchez.
Welbeck could be a key contributor if Arsenal can stay close to a storming Chelsea, either returning to the wing where he played at times last season, as a potential third-choice striker behind Sanchez and Giroud or an impact sub. A final possibility, though unlikely with Wenger at the helm, is to set up in a 4-4-2 where he sits alongside Sanchez up front with some combination of four midfielders behind him. While Xhaka and Elneny are out, it could be an option, though probably not against Chelsea.
2. Future Stars? The youngsters in the side today showed some silky skills, poise and guile that bely their age and experience. Reine-Adelaide was the most impressive of the trio, electrifying on the ball, able to rebound after a bad touch or losing the ball and astounding with slick passing and excellent vision. Sitting deeper, Maitland-Niles displayed great discipline as the other Arsenal midfielders charged forward to get involved in the attack quite often and provided the assist to the assist on the opening goal. And Rob Holding, who we saw in the starting lineup earlier in the season, was more solid than in many of those appearances; a player who could well make his way back to the starting 11 at some point if Koscielny or Mustafi go down (though let’s hope that is for a future season!). Arsenal have had a number of promising youth that have failed to make the move up, though a few have found success at other clubs, but one could see one of these youngsters making the move up sooner rather than later.
While not a youngster at 27, Lucas Perez was impressive once again and must be wondering what he has to do to get in the side on a regular basis. Unfortunately, he has little chance of supplanting Sanchez either on the left or through the middle, Giroud when Sanchez does start on the left and a dynamic and improving Iwobi on the other wing, with Ox and Walcott back from injury making it even harder. A run deep in the FA Cup might be his best shot to see further starts, though he is another available impact sub and could slot into the starting 11 with any injuries to key players, or in games surrounding at least two more Champions League ties.
Looking across the side, Arsenal arguably have the deepest and most talented side at their disposal since the Invincibles, with cover at every position on the pitch, except for a natural replacement for Cazorla. If they were to lose Sanchez or Ozil, however, big money would have to be spent to replace them, with no guarantee they could hit their heights upon arriving at the Emirates. Given the falloff for Ozil and Iwobi’s ability to slot in to the number 10 relatively seamlessly, it is Sanchez who is the player who must be resigned if Arsenal are to continue their march toward an elusive first title in 13 years.
3. Saints Subs Dominated: Southampton clearly have one of the better academies in England, if not Europe, cultivating the talents of so many stars that now play for other sides. Arsenal alone have snatched up three of them in recent years, including two starters in this game – Ox and Walcott – and one youngster they let out on loan this season (Chambers). Liverpool, of course, are loaded with ex-Saints including Lovren, Lallana, Clyne, Lambert and the sorely missed at the ACN, Mane.
Today, the youngsters were far less impressive, finding it hard to string together more than a few passes at a time, losing the ball in their own side far too often and failing to keep the disciplined back line that has made the Saints a formidable side to break down, particularly for an Arsenal side that has had their fair share of reversals against the South coast side over the past few season, including an exit from the EFL Cup that Southampton built on to beat Liverpool and head to the final against United next month. Sitting in the bottom half of the table, however, with that chance at silverware in the offing, this might be a loss that won’t cause too much consternation for the side.