Big players make the difference for Arsenal as tough run begins with a win

Big performances from Arsenal’s big players were key as the Gunners left Southampton with all three points on Tuesday night.

Mikel Arteta’s FA Cup gamble turned out to be an astute one as the fresher legs of Thomas Partey, Emile Smith Rowe, Bukayo Saka and Alex Lacazette – spared the full 90 minutes on Saturday – ultimately proved decisive.

And while most of us would rather have won both games, the realities of a truncated season and a disjointed squad mean we simply couldn’t have afforded to risk our big players in both games. On balance, most fans will be content with the bargain that was struck.

Key to that bargain was the availability from the outset of a clutch of stand-out performers and they delivered again when called upon, with Lacazette and Saka particularly excellent. The pair combined for two of Arsenal’s three goals on the night and, in truth, could have had more between them but for some profligacy. With a convincing win under our belts however, it would be churlish to complain.

The second coming of Lacazette has been particularly remarkable since Christmas and showed no sign of letting up as he again led the line with distinction, ably assisted by Arsenal’s young stars.

An honourable mention must also go to Nicolas Pepe, a man who has found himself on the receiving end of a disproportionate amount of abuse in recent months. Given his chance from the outset, the Ivorian was superb and, as the game wore on, you could see his confidence grow. As I mention in my YouTube breakdown, he still retains the ability to make the simple things look devastatingly difficult but he also has a knack from producing and his finish for the equalising goal was sublime.

I don’t think he will retain a place in the team for Saturday’s visit of Manchester United but his workrate and effort on the night were excellent. He has shortcomings, there’s no denying it, but we will just have to come to terms with that. He isn’t a perfect footballer but he is capable of making a difference.

This visit to Southampton was the first in a series of tricky fixtures for Arteta’s men but they came through it with distinction. Stiffer test are yet to come and points may be tougher to come by so let’s not turn our nose up at an opportunity to get some on the board early. Keeping our biggest players fresh and fit is going to be the biggest test in the weeks to come, and the early signs are not great (Partey and Smith Rowe both left the field early), but if we can find success with a measure of rotation, there is reason to be hopeful.

With every game that passes we look a little more confident and a little more cohesive, and there are players yet to come into this side who can help take us up a level too – think Kieran Tierney, the Gabriels, and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. For now, though, we can thank the big players who did the business for us at Southampton and allow us now to look forward to the weekend with a little bit more confidence and hope, whatever the size of the task ahead.

Here’s my Southampton v Arsenal breakdown on YouTube.

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