Defeat on the south coast today (Sunday) saw a return to the bad old days for Arsenal as a poor Southampton side were gifted a 3-2 win.
As so often the Gunners did in Arsene Wenger’s later years, we allowed a relegation-threatened side the opportunity to get on top of us with an error-strewn display that, on this occasion, our attack was unable to cancel out.
Despite twice coming from behind, Arsenal ultimately left themselves too much to do and were all at sea for the winning goal, a simple deep punt and close-range header for which several players were culpable.
It was an intensely frustrating way to cede our long unbeaten run, particularly to a side as woeful as Southampton, who, despite their success, remain a shoddy outfit stocked with one-dimensional players.
It was a habit I’d hoped we could move on from, particularly after Arsene’s final season in charge, but the spectre of that vulnerability was very much in evidence again as the Gunners were punished on three occasions and conceded a plethora of chances, some 12 shots, seven of which were on target.
It is not an especially new feature of this team – they have been conceding a disproportionate number of chances on goal all season – but it is something that was brought into sharper focus today by the lowly position of our hosts who, frankly, haven’t been able to hit a barn door from five yards all season.
Clear above all else is that, despite his best efforts, Unai Emery hasn’t managed to get a firm grip of this defence just yet. There have been improvements, for a certainty, but the propensity to make glaring errors has not disappeared and that, increasingly, looks as though it may be down to personnel, rather than a tactical issue.
Let’s not forget that we were without Rob Holding (knee), Sokratis and Shkodran Mustafi (both suspended) today, while Hector Bellerin was lost to injury midway through the game and Sead Kolasinac picked up a knock in training. In short, we were missing a lot of established and match fit players who have done fairly well this season.
The result was a patchwork defence featuring Granit Xhaka in the centre, with Laurent Koscielney and Nacho Monreal (both returning from long lay offs) and then Stephan Lichtsteiner and Ainsley Maitland Niles (also returning from an injury lay off). It was far from ideal and it showed.
In the short term, Emery is going to have to find a way to cope over the next few weeks as the games come thick and fast. Sokratis and Mustafi should return following their one-match suspensions but problems remain in the wide areas.
He may also have to make tweaks in order to sure this team up from a defensive perspective because the performance at St Mary’s was too much like a Wenger team for comfort. It’s not a habit or reputation we want to acquire.
It’s not worth pushing the panic button just yet. The uplifting effect of a new manager and a series of favourable circumstances for the home side (injuries, glaring errors etc) afforded them the win and those aren’t issues we will have to deal with every week.
However, we don’t want the damaging effects of defeat to linger on any longer than this weekend, particularly after acquiring so much momentum over the last 21 matches.
In the longer term, Unai Emery and Sven Mistlintat will need to have a good look at our playing personnel and whether they are the right fit for where we want to be. All players make mistakes, and all players have the capacity to improve, but not all players have the ability required to perform at the level we want to be at so some long, hard thinking must needs be done.
Can we move some players on and bring some new ones in to take us to the next level? I would imagine almost certainly yes. Whether we can do that sort of business in January is unclear but I would be surprised if we didn’t at least try.
For now, all we can do is brood on our first defeat in a good while and hope we can dust ourselves down for next week.