Unai Emery pleased with added creativity after Southampton win
Photo: Getty Images- Richard Heathcote

Unai Emery pleased with added creativity after Southampton win

Emery took the time to praise both the defensive and attacking performance of his team as they beat Southampton 2-0. 

Matt Dawson

Arsenal are back in the top four. A 2-0 win over Southampton may not say much but it answered a lot of questions about the Gunners.

They've had defensive issues all season and in recent months developed creative struggles too. There were no such problems on Sunday afternoon though as they answered a few doubters.

It may have been against a relegation-threatened side, but it was a team who beat Arsenal earlier in the season so there should be plenty of positivity from this performance.

Alexandre Lacazette got the ball rolling early on in the game, the type of moment which has been all too rare in the north London club's topsy-turvy season.

His flicked finish gave the Gunners the advantage though and shortly after, the inconsistent Henrikh Mkhitaryan added another. Plenty more chances were to follow, and the only negative that can be taken from the afternoon's proceedings was that they couldn't boost their goal difference further. 

Top four hopes

Arsenal came into today's match knowing that a win and dropped points for Manchester United against Liverpool would see them enter the top four. That's exactly what happened. Gunners fans have moaned quite a lot recently but their league position and last 16 spot in the Europa League is exactly what you'd have expected of the Islington club this term. 

When asked about moving into fourth spot, Unai Emery said:  "For us it's positive. It's not changing our way. We are going to play a lot of matches and it's important to play with a big performance like today."

The Spaniard also commented on the other teams in the race for the top four: "Our focus is in our way, we cannot control the result with Manchester United, with Chelsea or with Tottenham - we are going to play against them - that's the only moment we can decide the result."

Defensive display

Arsenal managed to keep a rare clean sheet today in what, for once, was a pretty solid display at the back. Sokratis particularly stood out and his steely nature was precisely what this Gunners defence was missing before he arrived.

He was paired alongside the enigmatic Shkodran Mustafi and later Laurent Koscielny after Stephan Lichtsteiner had to be replaced.

Emery has opted for three at the back at times this season but on this occasion went with four and it appeared to work. After the match, he opted to speak about the systems the Gunners can operate with. "We can play with different players and with different systems, it's not the same. We can attack a lot with our left and right back. Sometimes it's better to play with three centre backs to protect the back," Emery explained.

Ainsley Maitland-Niles missed the match through injury but his stand-in, Lichtsteiner impressed Emery. "After today, I think Lichtsteiner played the best 45 minutes of his season," the Arsenal head coach added.

Another player, Emery was quick to praise was Bernd Leno who had to be sharp to make an early save to deny Nathan Redmond and was also called upon late in the match to make a sprawling save to deny Matt Targett. "They have players in attacking play - very fast players like Redmond and in the first action they get in our space and they created good chances. We also need our goalkeeper. I think today Leno helped us a lot," Emery analysed.

Creating more in attack

After Lacazette missed Arsenal's second leg win over BATE Borisov on Thursday night through suspension, it was going to be intriguing to see whether he and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang would be selected together against Southampton. They weren't and instead it was the Frenchman who was preferred to Aubameyang with a busy schedule to come for the club meaning rotation was necessary. 

It was a decision that appeared vindicated, even if Arsenal's number nine missed a glorious chance to make it three just before the break. "Lacazette deserved to score more and Aubameyang had two chances also. I think this is the way," Emery noted.

Creating chances has been an issue in recent months but there was a stark improvement in that area of the game throughout the first 45 minutes. Emery opted to go with a 4-2-3-1 formation with Aaron Ramsey in the number ten role and Alex Iwobi and Mkhitaryan behind the sole striker.

Having wide options like Iwobi and Mkhitaryan is what worked for Emery earlier in the season and it looks as though he's gone back for a formula that treated Arsenal well during their best run of the campaign.

The Spaniard was therefore quick to praise the impact of his more creative players: "We created chances and I think we can win for a bigger difference than these two goals but we need to continue to play with this speed, to play with this intensity and keep it for 90 minutes. My problem is we cannot create chances but today that was not the problem."

Games come thick and fast for Arsenal over the next month with a match against Bournemouth on Wednesday before taking on Tottenham in the north London derby. They then face Rennes over two legs in Europe and also play Man United.

It'll be a testing period for the Gunners and one which will likely define their season.