Progress was always going to be slow for Arsenal on the long road to recovery and Thursday’s 2-0 win at Southampton was proof of just how far there is to go.
Victory was a welcome tonic after two pretty abject defeats at Manchester City and Brighton since the Premier League season restarted but it wasn’t a match that will linger long in the memory.
And that’s not meant as a scathing criticism of team’s efforts or Mikel Arteta’s management, rather it’s the reality for a side that is fighting still to emerge from the ashes of the Unai Emery era [and perhaps even the Arsene Wenger era].
That process, despite all of our hopes, is going to take months, if not years, and a period of relative mediocrity is likely to be the reality for Gunners’ fans. That said, new eras begin with the turning of the tide and, with each ground-out victory, the waves begin to gather strength for Arteta.
Clear above all else is the manager’s desire to instill some structure and discipline into his side and the result of that is often a lessening of our attacking capabilities. For a fanbase long spoiled by the magnificence of the Wenger years, it is a bitter pill but one that must be swallowed if the obvious defects at the heart of the team are to be addressed.
Our performance at St Mary’s was one defined by a sense of machine-like discipline. The team worked prodigiously hard to suppress its worst tendencies, to stop itself from pressing the self-destruct button as it has so often before. The emphasis was on togetherness, on being in the right place at the right time, and on cutting out the self-harm.
For the most part, those objectives were achieved. Shkodran Mustafi and Rob Holding were good, with Kieran Tierney performing ably on the left. Hetor Bellerin didn’t have his best night on the right hand side and, in truth, hasn’t really recaptured his form since his long injury lay off. Perhaps some time out of the side would be needed.
Much was made of Granit Xhaka’s impact on the game on his return to the midfield and it’s difficult to disagree that he offers this team something that no other in the squad does. While correlation is not necessarily causation, there is a growing body of evidence that his inclusion is crucial to getting the best out of the team. Keeping him fit until the end of this campaign is going to be of utmost importance.
With the blood and guts of the team secure, we had a base to build from and, while we weren’t exactly laying siege to the Saints’ goal, we produced enough to have won this game in the first half. Unfortunately, our recent profligacy in front of goal was much in evidence again and we made life a little harder for ourselves than could otherwise have been the case.
Hopefully, the more minutes Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and co get under their belts, the sharper their finishing will become because this current iteration of Arsenal is not one able to spurn a large number of chances. If we create a guilt edge opportunity, we have to take it because we can’t be sure when the next one is coming.
All of that said, it was a much-needed win away from home and a clean sheet. That’s a positive building block after a tough restart to the campaign and something we can move forward with into the matches still to come. I suspect there are more difficult days to come for this side, and steps back will be taken, but the path Arteta has us walking is a long and especially rocky one, it has to be if we want to make it back to the top.