Arsenal maintain top-four challenge as Sanchez, Giroud see off Southampton
SOUTHAMPTON, England -- Three thoughts from Arsenal's 2-0 win over Southampton on Wednesday in the Premier League.
1. Sanchez saves Arsenal's Champions League challenge
Alexis Sanchez's excellently taken goal and substitute Olivier Giroud's close-range header maintained Arsenal's Champions League challenge.
This victory lifts Arsenal ahead of Manchester United - the Gunners defeated United 2-0 on Sunday -- and into fifth place. Arsenal are now three points behind fourth-place Manchester City, having played the same number of games, and -- more intriguingly -- four points behind third-place Liverpool with a game in hand.
The 2-0 win today slightly flatters Arsenal. Southampton created considerably better chances, particularly in the first half, and Arsenal struggled to feed the ball to Sanchez and Mesut Ozil regularly between the lines. But Ozil teed up Sanchez, providing the breakthrough, with an old-school example of Arsenal's neat, intricate attacking interplay.
Wenger continued with the 3-4-2-1 system he has deployed in recent weeks. Although theoretically this suits the natural attacking game of Ozil and Sanchez, in truth Arsenal haven't seen the best of either in this formation. This was another largely disappointing showing from the duo -- Sanchez was penalised for a foul throw at the start of the second half, summarising his malaise -- but he's capable of conjuring moments of magic from nowhere. His winner was a fine example.
Receiving the ball from Ozil on the half-turn, Sanchez swept it around into his own path before shaping to shoot with his right foot. Both Maya Yoshida and Jack Stephens were fooled by this, and Sanchez then cut back onto his left without any defenders in his way and fired past Southampton keeper Fraser Forster. Sanchez has now scored 20 league goals in a single season for the first time in his career.
Giroud added the second in the closing stages, a simple header after Aaron Ramsey had nodded Sanchez's left-wing cross back across goal. This wasn't vintage Arsenal, but it might turn out to be a hugely important win.
2. Wenger's three-man defence largely a success
Arsenal started sluggishly here, moving the ball slowly through midfield, with Southampton's well-organised defence closing space between the lines quickly.
The Gunners' best moments often came when they played the ball directly to Danny Welbeck. One moment, when the forward instinctively swivelled to flick the ball into the path of the onrushing Ozil, was probably the Gunners' best piece of attacking interplay in the first half, although the Germany star was denied by a fine last-ditch tackle from the youngster Stephens. Although he conceded an unnecessary penalty at Anfield at the weekend through a silly handball, Stephens has emerged as an extremely promising centre-back and was again largely comfortable here against Arsenal's all-star front trio.
Arsenal started the second half more brightly. Hector Bellerin, introduced as a first-half replacement for the injured Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, stabbed a low cross into the box, which Ramsey -- increasingly comfortable in this new formation and making dangerous forward runs -- met with a side-footed volley just wide. That was a more typical example of Arsenal's attacking play, which largely flowed down the flanks rather than through their two central playmakers.
Defensively, Arsenal looked less comfortable without their usual leader, Laurent Koscielny (calf injury), although Shkodran Mustafi played well, often anticipating Southampton's passing moves by nipping in front of opposition strikers to win the ball quickly and cleanly. He was also the most vocal of the three centre-backs, although the organisation was not always perfect, with gaps on the outside of the three inviting runs from Southampton's attacking duo of Manolo Gabbiadini and Dusan Tadic.
But Wenger's decision to switch to a three-man defence for the first time in 20 years must be considered a success. The defeat away against Tottenham was a disappointment, though hardly unexpected, but overall it's five wins from six since the 3-0 defeat to Crystal Palace last month. Can Arsenal produce yet another late run to shoot up the league table?
3. Southampton can't turn dominance into goals
This serves as a decent example of Southampton's campaign overall. They were the better side throughout the first half but struggled to turn their dominance into goals.
Initially, manager Claude Puel's side sat deep in two banks of four, allowing Tadic to play centrally behind lone striker Gabbiadini. As always, Saints' defensive shape was excellent, showing the opposition out wide before pressuring in twos when Ozil or Sanchez received possession. As Southampton's weekend display at Liverpool demonstrated, if Saints want to park the bus, they can frustrate the life out of superior opponents.
But gradually, Southampton developed into an attacking force, too. After a rare spell of prolonged possession play, their two full-backs combined dangerously, with Cedric Soares scampering forward and sending a deep cross into the box that found Ryan Bertrand, who passed the ball across the 6-yard box with no one on hand to tap home. Further chances came from counterattacking situations; a quick turnover and an immediate long ball found Gabbiadini scampering into the left-hand channel, but his low ball across the box couldn't find a Southampton player.
Southampton then had two fine chances in quick succession, when Nathan Redmond's chip over the top of the defence found Tadic running through. His attempted shot was blocked brilliantly by the recovering Mustafi, and when Gabbiadini was on hand to smash the rebound toward goal, keeper Petr Cech made a fine save with his left knee.
Next, Redmond's powerful 30-yard, swerving shot was expertly tipped over the crossbar by Cech. Southampton's final effort of the first half came from a free kick, when Mustafi was controversially punished for a two-footed tackle on Tadic, 25 yards out, dead-centre. Gabbiadini blasted a left-footed kick toward the top corner, but it swerved too much to find his desired destination.
Southampton's second-half performance featured various spells of pressure, but there were few clear-cut chances. It seems that there aren't enough goal threats from midfield in this side: James Ward-Prowse rarely tests the opposition goalkeeper, and Steven Davis' often woeful finishing is his major shortcoming. Meanwhile, Gabbiadini is clearly not as prolific as his initial performances suggested, and Puel summoned both Shane Long and Jay Rodriguez late on.
But Southampton didn't create any major chances after going down 1-0. They rarely play badly, but converting good performances into goals should be their major priority next season.
Michael Cox is the editor of zonalmarking.net and a contributor to ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Zonal_Marking.