29 January 2014

Southampton 2-2 Arsenal: Point taken

If you had told me at the end of the first half that we'd keep a point from our trip to St. Mary's Stadium, I'd have taken it.

If you had told me 21 minutes into the first half that we'd keep a point, I'd have gladly taken it.

Hell, if you had told me 11 minutes into the first half that we'd keep a point, I might have leapt at it even then.

That's how thoroughly we were outplayed for those first 45 minutes. Part of this reflects how poor we were, but it also reminds us of how good Southampton is—or can be, at least. They're not nearly as bad as their position on the table suggests, and 9th, up from 14th a year ago, up from the Championship the year before that, is impressive. Are they as good as 3rd, where they say five weeks in and just before their trip to the Emirates? No, but this is a club that has, after all, drawn Man City, won at Anfield, and drawn at Old Trafford. They're no shrinking violets, and the points dropped, for as tragic as they may feel given that Man City and Chelsea most likely will in on Wednesday, are still not enough to cripple our title hopes. Things get a bit more challenging, for sure, but the firmament hasn't yet crumbled, nor have Chelsea or City actually won—yet.

They may. Most likely, they will. However, let's continue to look on the bright side, shall we? We played one of the worst 45 minutes of football in almost 12 months and still very nearly came away with three points from one of the Prem's most-dangerous sides. Thanks to injuries, we were forced to play one of our least-aggressive and most static defensive midfields with Arteta and Flamini, neither of whom is comfortable with (or good at) pressing forward, and this left a gap between them and the attacking midfield. Worse, Monreal had a stinker of a game, perhaps because Rodriguez had space to pour forward past Cazorla. Sagna fared little better, as Lallana ran riot down the opposite flank because Gnabry wasn't tracking back effectively either. Were it not for Szczesny making vital saves, and were it not for a seven-minute stretch after halftime during which we managed to score, we might have come away on the wrong end of a clean sheet, maybe even a drubbing.

There were times in that first half when it looked and felt like we might go down two or even three goals. We barely brought the ball past midfield until the 12-minute mark, during which time Southampton had a number of strong chances. That we emerged down 1-0 is a bit of a miracle, to be honest, and to have actually pulled ahead through goals from Giroud and Cazorla  felt even more miraculous.

However, I worry that most of the talk will focus on how we really should have won. Well, "should have" is putting it strongly. "Really wanted to" is probably more accurate, but the same can be said on Southampton's side. Should Chelsea and City go on to win Wednesday evening, yes, we'll fall to third. However, these are the first points against a lower-side since drawing with West Brom in October. I would still maintain that Southampton are far better than their position suggests. They may not finish in the top five, but I could see them climbing a few spots higher.

A draw, then, is not the tragedy some are making it out to be. Draws rarely feel very inspiring, especially when it might give our rivals an edge. More damaging to our hopes, in my opinion, is the red-card and four-game suspension for Flamini coupled with the 4-6 week injury-loss of Ramsey. It makes us dangerously thin in the defensive midfield going into a tough, tough stretch of fixtures, a stretch in which we might gladly accept a draw or two.

Before we look too much further ahead, though, let's set our sights on Crystal Palace's visit on Saturday (while hoping, however vainly, that this minor setback, along with the absences of Flamini, Ramsey, and Walcott, inspire Arsene to pull another rabbit out of his hat by Friday.

'Til next time, thanks for your visit.