x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Arsenal impose will on Southampton and tighten grip on top

Two goals by Olivier Giroud - one thanks to an early gaffe by Southampton keeper Artur Boruc and the other a late penalty - put Arsenal on top 2-0 on Saturday night.

Olivier Giroud had both of Arsenal's goals in their victory on Saturday. Ian Kington / AFP
Olivier Giroud had both of Arsenal's goals in their victory on Saturday. Ian Kington / AFP

LONDON // Their lead at the top of the table is back to four points, and Arsenal can take great credit from a patient and mature 2-0 victory against a Southampton side who were the better side in stages.

The comparative slenderness of Southampton’s squad may undermine them before the end of the season, but it is no fluke that they went into the game in third place in the Premier League and, on this sort of form, they will take points from Arsenal’s contenders for the title.

In the end, they were undone primarily by another entry in Artur Boruc’s not-inconsiderable collection of howlers.

The goal that gave Arsenal the lead was farcical, but it would be wrong to suggest it was undeserved. Jack Wilshere and Aaron Ramsey had both hit the same post, the former with a delicate chip, the latter with a clever chip from Mesut Ozil’s low cross, when Boruc dallied over a backpass after 22 minutes.

As Olivier Giroud closed him down, he attempted a backheel, fluffed the attempt and was dispossessed, leaving the French forward to roll in his sixth league goal of the season.

“It’s clear that we were unlucky in the way we conceded the goal,” said Mauricio Pochettino, the Southampton manager. “There’s nothing more to analyse.”

After allowing a goal after 13 seconds to his fellow goalkeeper Asmir Begovic at Stoke City two matches ago, Boruc had promised to earn back the two points that mistake cost the team.

If football works like that, he is in danger of falling into a spiral of debt – even if he was solid enough for the rest of the game in the face of persistent mockery from Arsenal fans.

Giroud sealed the win from the penalty spot with four minutes remaining, after Jose Fonte had grabbed a handful of Per Mertesacker’s shirt as they challenged for a corner.

“The focus, the ambition, the desire are there,” Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger said. “In the end, we couldn’t take our chances, but we took advantage of their mistakes. They are very well organised and our technical quality was enough to get the win.

“We had to be patient and intelligent, not to make the first mistake. That maybe is where we have improved in our defensive stability.”

After a slightly disappointing England debut against Chile last Friday, Jay Rodriguez was back to somewhere near his best, although it is easy to see why he found the transition so difficult.

For Southampton, he presses high up the field and when he receives the ball, it tends to be in front of him from a vertical pass as Southampton look to get the ball forward quickly and catch the opposition before they have time to set themselves.

With England and their more conservative approach, he was more commonly receiving the ball with his back to goal, having to turn and create space for himself.

Adam Lallana, another England debutant last week, was less eye-catching, struggling with a groin strain and largely shut out by Miikel Arteta. He was withdrawn for Pablo Osvaldo nine minutes into the second half.

Southampton have been deservedly praised for what they have done since the appointment of Pochettino in January, but one thing that hasn’t yet worked out is the signing of the Italian from Roma for £16 million (Dh95.3m), and his arrival only surrendered the midfield to Arsenal as Rickie Lambert was forced into a deeper role.

Pochettino insisted the move was forced by Lallana’s physical problems, rather than any tactical thinking, but either way, it undermined the Southampton charge and allowed Arsenal to settle.