A season that promised so much for Arsenal is unravelling fast and starting to take a rather ominous shape. Mikel Arteta strode down the tunnel with a face like thunder after fidgeting his way through a third successive defeat – and a fourth in five matches – that threatens to impede seriously their pursuit of returning to the Champions League.
The rejuvenated Southampton goalkeeper Fraser Forster kept Arsenal at bay, making superb saves in each half, but this was another toothless performance from Arteta’s side and, if he was not already worried at the way his team are spiralling, he will surely be fretting now, particularly given they face Chelsea at Stamford Bridge on Wednesday before matches against Manchester United and West Ham.
For Southampton, this was something of a restorative mission, the kind of afternoon that cleansed the palate after five defeats in their previous six, including that humiliating demolition here last week. Forster was the only Southampton player to come out of their 6-0 battering against Chelsea with any credit and the 34-year-old, who was recalled to the England squad after a five-year hiatus last month, continued where he left off here, somehow diverting Bukayo Saka’s attempt to convert Gabriel Martinelli’s centre.
With 73 minutes on the clock he clawed a scuffed shot by the substitute Emile Smith Rowe to safety as Arsenal pushed for an equaliser, every outfield player camped inside the Southampton half. Forster’s performance was all the more remarkable given an ankle complaint saw him pull out of training on Friday. Arsenal had 23 shots, six on target, but Jan Bednarek’s calm finish on the brink of the interval was the only effort that rippled the net.
The agonising part for Arsenal is that they failed to take advantage of Tottenham’s slip-up at home to Brighton and instead drop to sixth, after Manchester United overcame Norwich late on. Asked how big an opportunity was missed, Arteta replied: “Huge. Because as somebody who doesn’t know the result and is watching the game, you know what they would tell you: that Arsenal won the game. And we didn’t. But it is very disappointing and it’s difficult to explain with words.
“This is sport. It is what makes it different to any other. In basketball, you have 25 shots and the opponent has one, you win 10 out of 10 times. They are really down because they cannot find the right answer, apart from what we can do better around the box, to win the match.”
Arteta, all in black, was dressed appropriately for the funereal mood in the away dressing room at full-time. Eddie Nketiah, who led the line in the absence of the ill Alexandre Lacazette, collapsed to the floor as the final whistle sounded. Arsenal struggled to penetrate Southampton, whose manager, Ralph Hasenhüttl, decided to switch to a five-man defence after conceding 19 goals in their previous six matches. Yan Valery and Lyanco both wobbled but Southampton, shielded impeccably by Forster, defended stoutly as Martin Ødegaard rattled the side netting and Granit Xhaka took aim late on.
“We knew that it was time to show a reaction and that we can play a little bit different,” Hasenhüttl said. “We wanted to minimise the mistakes we made in the last weeks. We had to change things. Because of the history of the last games it was needed.”
Bednarek’s goal was ugly from an Arsenal perspective. When Ramsdale punched a James Ward-Prowse corner clear, Southampton appeared rather harmless opponents. But Romain Perraud managed to recycle possession, hooking a ball over his head more in hope than anything and Mohamed Elyounoussi darted towards the byline, where he cut the ball back for Bednarek to side-foot in beyond the goalkeeper. Gabriel summed up Arsenal’s frustrations, walloping the ball against the bar as Southampton ran off to celebrate.
Before the visiting supporters had the chance to digest the arrival of Nicolas Pépé with 20 minutes to play, this game had morphed into an exercise of attack versus defence but Arsenal could not forage a route through.
“The players that we have, they haven’t done it in this league,” Arteta said. “When you have world-class players who have done it in the league for 10 years, probably you are not sitting here with that. The result is what at the end we need to be where we have to be. If we are not able to do that, then we are not going to be there. It is as simple as that.”
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