Danny Welbeck shines in consequential win for Arsenal as Southampton suffer serious setback
Arsene Wenger pleased with return to form of English striker as defeat puts opponents in genuine danger of relegation
It was an extraordinary miss. Danny Welbeck was perhaps two yards out, maybe three, and utterly unmarked when Jack Wilshere did wonderfully to divert Alex Iwobi’s deep cross back across the six-yard box.
He was stretching but that in itself was no explanation for the way his shot cleared the crossbar.
This, it seemed, was pure Welbeck, the man who does much else right but is not a natural scorer. Yet it was not the day to make that argument. Not when he scored a redemptive winner three minutes later, heading in the outstanding Iwobi’s cross, or when it was his second goal of the game.
After seven months without a Premier League strike, he ought to have had a hat-trick. He did manage a treble of sorts, getting an assist by doing a passable impression of the rested Mesut Ozil with a delectable flick.
“He is coming back to his best,” Arsene Wenger said. “He deserves everything he gets.”
Yet Welbeck’s own analysis reflected the odd nature of his performance. “I know when I get the opportunities in front of goal I will put them away,” he said. “Apart from the one I put over.”
Ultimately, he proved the match-winner, deciding a game that mattered less to Arsenal – as the empty seats at the Emirates Stadium showed – than to Southampton. Wenger’s side should ward off the challenge of Burnley to retain sixth place, but their priorities are elsewhere.
They could make seven changes and a slack start and still win.
In theory, Southampton ought to derive encouragement. After capitulating at West Ham United, they competed at the Emirates. They scored twice, had another goal disallowed and drew a series of saves from Petr Cech.
They reaped some dividends from manager Mark Hughes’s decision to rip up his original blueprint and play 3-4-2-1, with a liberated Cedric Soares a revelation at wing-back and a recalled Shane Long scoring.
“Our gameplan worked for the most part,” Hughes said.
Yet this moved them a step closer to the Championship. An opportunity was missed, their plight worsened even before Jack Stephens’s injury-time red card for shoving Wilshere to the ground meant he incurred a three-match ban. “I think Wilshere should have been sent off,” a graceless Hughes said.
Mohamed Elneny’s subsequent dismissal, for pushing Soares, may come at a rather lesser cost to Arsenal. “I was surprised he was sent off,” Wenger added. “We will look at it to see if we have the grounds for an appeal.”
It was a coda to an action-packed game where regular and irregular scorers traded goals and the goalkeepers stops.
Long had only struck once in his previous 47 games but found the net twice. The second was rightly ruled offside. The first was Southampton’s opener.
Shkodran Mustafi began awfully and one error had permitted James Ward-Prowse a chance, with Hector Bellerin required to make the first of Arsenal’s two goal-line clearances. Elneny later made the second.
Then Long darted in front of a static Mustafi to apply a deft finish to Soares’s cross. Arsenal responded with two goals in nine minutes. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s sixth in seven games came after Iwobi and Welbeck combined.
They linked up again when the Englishman put Arsenal ahead with a shot that deflected off Maya Yoshida’s heel. “Lucky,” Hughes complained.
Alex McCarthy kept Southampton in the game with a string of saves before Hughes sent for Charlie Austin and Saints’ top scorer extended his remarkable record of finding the net in each league appearance against Arsenal. Soares was his supplier but the equally influential Welbeck responded to secure a comparatively meaningless win for Arsenal.
It was, though, a significant setback for Southampton.
Updated: April 9, 2018 03:17 PM