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Sunday, July 25, 2021

Arsenal stop the rot as Nketiah and Willock reward ruthless Arteta

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Matteo Guendouzi was axed from the Gunners squad before they won 2-0 at Southampton to move to ninth in the Premier League

It wasn’t the prettiest but Arsenal stopped the rot at Southampton with a vital 2-0 win to breathe some life into their faltering season.

They were hanging on in the end and were indebted to a fabulous stop from Emiliano Martinez 15 minutes from time to protect the first-half lead given to them by Eddie Nketiah, but Joe Willock’s late strike ensured they got the job done at St Mary’s to secure only their third away league win of the season.

It’s a victory that moves them back up to ninth in the Premier League table, six points behind fifth-placed Manchester United with eight games remaining.

That is likely to be too big a gap to bridge, but for now Mikel Arteta will just be relived his side have got themselves up and running after such a traumatic opening fortnight to the Premier League’s restart.

Arsenal came into this game with the spotlight firmly on them, not just because of the two successive defeats – but for the manner of performances against Manchester City and Brighton.

The errors that seemed to have diminished before lockdown returned sharply following the restart. Failure to even pick up a point from their opening two games had all but ended their slim hopes of securing Champions League football for next season.

Add that to the controversy caused by the decision to hand David Luiz a new contract as well as long-term deals to the injured Cedric Soares and Pablo Mari and it felt like most were waiting for a full on implosion at Arsenal.

Ahead of kick off, Arteta admitted that he had put thoughts of top level European football out of his mind and that he just wanted to see his players show some belief again.

“Until we start to win football games the Champions League objective is too far at the moment,” said the Spaniard. “My only focus is going to Southampton to win, to lift the players and for them to start believing again.”

So Arteta would have been delighted with what he saw at St Mary’s. This was far from vintage Arsenal, but it was a much improved display and one that fully warranted the three points.

That the two goals came from academy products was an even bigger bonus and, perhaps, a sign of a positive new era that could be around the corner in north London if Arteta is given time to shape his squad in the manner he wants

There were some nervy moments in the second half, but that was to be expected given the way results have gone in the last couple of weeks.

The fact they survived those nervy moments will do a lot to improve the confidence and belief that had been sucked out of the players following the games at the Etihad and the Amex.

Arteta made some changes from the defeat at Brighton, bringing Nketiah back into the starting line-up in place of Alexandre Lacazette. Kieran Tierney and Granit Xhaka also returned.

Matteo Guendouzi, however, was left out of the squad altogether. The midfielder may have escaped punishment from the Football Association for his clash with Neal Maupay after the final whistle at Brighton, but he didn’t escape the wrath of Arteta.

It’s the second time Arsenal’s head coach has banished Guendouzi from a matchday squad due to his behaviour and the fiery Frenchman is learning more than most how ruthless the Spaniard can be.

Tierney’s return saw Arsenal line up in a 3-4-3 formation, with the Scotland international playing as the left-sided centre-back alongside Rob Holding and Shkodran Mustafi. Bukayo Saka and Hector Bellerin provided the width in the wing-back positions.

It was a formation that worked very well in the first half. The visitors were well on top and had already seen Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang hit the bar before Nketiah forced a horrible error from Southampton keeper Alex McCarthy and rolled the ball into an empty net.

“It was a very important three points,” Nketiah told Sky Sports after. “I think we’ve been unfortunate in the first game and the last game, the results didn’t go our way.

“We knew we had to roll our sleeves up and really fight for the three points and hopefully we can build on this and keep pushing forwards.”

They should have doubled their advantage just before the interval but Nketiah got his finish all wrong when he was picked out in space.

The second half was more nervy, with the hosts shading most of the play, but Arsenal held firm with Holding producing his best performance since returning from his cruciate ligament injury.

Shane Long, who came on at half time and who has been the scourge of Arsenal in the past, did have one golden opportunity but his powerful shot was kept out superbly by Martinez, who was in the side in place of the injured Bernd Leno.

And Arsenal took advantage of that lucky escape soon after. Willock reacted quickly after McCarthy had spilled Lacazette’s free-kick to fire home the second from close range.

Arteta looked more relieved than anything at full time. He knew how important this win was for his players ahead of Sunday’s FA Cup quarter-final. Arsenal may not be back, but at least they have ended their bad sequence.

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