An Eddie Nketiah goal on 20 minutes and a late Joe Willock strike sealed a hard-fought 2-0 victory for Arsenal at Southampton on Thursday evening, who had Jack Stephens sent-off late on, writes Layth Yousif from St Mary's.
In a heartening performance from Mikel Arteta’s side on the south coast the Gunners showed effort, endeavor and commitment in an engaging display in heatwave temperatures.
The win saw Arsenal move back into the top half of the table while banishing previous poor results and form this month – raising the spirits of fans of the north Londoners everywhere.
With the soon-to-be-crowned Premier League champions Liverpool set to test Jurgen Klopp’s very excellent observation that football is the most important of least important things on Thursday evening, it has been worth noting the positive power of our beautiful game. Not only to rejoice in, but to heal.
At times during the height of the pandemic in the proud port town of Southampton deaths reached twice the national average, with football so far from residents minds as to be irrelevant.
But all things must pass, even fear and pain. The Premier League’s Project Restart has offered a welcome pause from the grim news we’ve processed over these last few, strange, months - even if the excessive demands that uncaring politicians demanded from a sport that has always done its fair share to boost beleaguered communities, felt as unfair as it was nonsensical.
Talk from politicians is cheap in a crisis so sport steps up with deeds. While Arsenal have rightly taken plaudits for helping those in need in north London, Saints too, have been helping those in their area, with the club supplying 12,000 meals for the most vulnerable on the south coast.
Football so rightly is not more important than life or death.
But it does play a large role in the national psyche.
And so it came to pass that five days before July Arsenal travelled to Southampton to fulfill a Premier League fixture.
And football once again filled our thoughts, giving respite from the latest on coronavirus.
Southampton vs Arsenal team changes
History might not have favoured Arsenal at St Mary's, with the Gunners losing three of their last five Premier League meetings with Saints – but while the north Londoners had only won twice on the road this season, Southampton lost nine home games in the league, more than any other top-flight side.
Arteta made four changes from Saturday’s miserable defeat at the hands of Brighton with Matteo Guendouzi placed firmly on the naughty step after his unnecessary petulance on the final whistle against the Seagulls, while the underperforming Alex Lacazette made way for Nketiah as Kieran Tierney replaced Sead Kolasinac. Emi Martinez was drafted in for Bernd Leno after his injury at the Amex.
Arteta seems determined to give youth a chance and also included talented teenager Matthew Smith make the squad. The player is well regarded at the club after captaining an impressive Arsenal U18 side to the Premier League South title in 2018-19, playing every minute of the campaign and assisting 14 goals.
However, all that mattered on Thursday evening was the restoration of pride in the Arsenal shirt after the brace of lacklustre displays on the road during the defeats to Manchester City and Brighton.
Unsurprisingly they started in lively fashion on the south coast.
On ten minutes Aubameyang thudded the bar as Arsenal dominated the opening stages in a lively start from Arteta's men - with danger coming predominantly down the left flank through Kieran Tierney, Bukayo Saka and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang linking well to threaten the home side.
Prior to that the impish Saka crossed for Nketiah to slot home, but the goal was correctly disallowed for offside. What was instructive was the reaction from the substitutes bench, sat high enough up in the St Mary’s stands as to be near the prying eyes of the journalists assembled, as Alex Lacazette leapt up in celebration before the strike was disallowed by referee Graham Scott.
Arsenal were not to be deterred and on 20 minutes Nketiah slotted home after rounding keeper Alex McCarthy to slip the ball into an empty net, to put the Gunners ahead to the cheers of the Arteta, his staff and players.
Nketiah's strike was only the third goal Arsenal have scored in a competitive match in the month of June after Pepe last week during the 2-1 defeat at the Amex and Ian McPherson against Sheffield United on June 7, 1947 in a 2-1 loss at Bramall Lane.
It was no surprise the tempo dropped shortly afterwards, with the heatwave temperatures draining players on both sides. Yet as referee Scott blew for the much-desired interval, Arsenal’s new-found determination, allied with an effective pressing game saw them head into the tunnel with a deserved 1-0 lead.
Arsenal double lead in second half
The second half mostly had the feel of a pre-season friendly, which given the temperatures and the time of year, you could be forgiven for thinking it was.
There was still time for Martinez to make an excellent block from Shane Long before smothering at the second attempt to keep the Gunners 1-0 in front.
There was still time to double the lead through Willock, who slammed home to make it 2-0 after the Gunners peppered McCarthy following a red card for Stephens who was sent off for tripping Aubameyang just outside the box.
As the clock ticked down and celebrations geared up 250 miles north on Merseyside, Arsenal’s hard-fought victory in the summer sun might be soon forgotten by many neutrals.
But for Gooners everywhere it marked a turning point.
Given the paucity of performances during this miserable season – and with the club’s final chance of silverware looming as Sheffield United approach on Sunday at Bramall Lane in the sixth round of the FA Cup - it simply has to.