Reversing loss at Saints suggests Arsenal’s goals are bigger than FA Cup

Football

SOUTHAMPTON, England — One victory will not banish the disappointment of surrendering their hold on the FA Cup, but Mikel Arteta will feel a sense of vindication in Arsenal exacting revenge against Southampton with a 3-1 win at St. Mary’s to climb above them in the Premier League table.

The Gunners returned to the venue where there exited the FA Cup just three days earlier, but the same two teams only appeared in name only. Arteta made five changes having prioritised this fixture from before the last one, recalling in-form duo Emile Smith Rowe and Bukayo Saka, with David Luiz returning in defence, Thomas Partey beefing up the midfield and Alexandre Lacazette leading the line.

Of Southampton’s three changes, two were enforced. And with first-choice full-backs Kyle Walker-Peters and Ryan Bertrand unavailable, the home side looked like they’d had their wings clipped.

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Ralph Hasenhuttl’s team lacked the same intensity in their press and conviction in attack while Arsenal were reinvigorated with a renewed sense of purpose, Smith Rowe and Saka continuing to provide an impressive end product alongside youthful endeavour.

Arteta was able to survive the most turbulent period of his Arsenal tenure in part because he could point to last season’s FA Cup success as tangible evidence his methodology can yield success, but their ultimate goal is to move beyond that and become a Champions League team again. They have a long way to go in that particular task, but it explains Arteta’s thinking in not risking several players who were carrying fitness problems — Partey and Smith Rowe among them — most trusted to perform and a glance at the table provides real encouragement at what might be possible, especially with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang missing again for personal reasons.

Aside from West Ham United, the rest may have games in hand but Arsenal are up to eighth and five points from the most unlikely of top-four places. Beat leaders Manchester United on Saturday and Arteta will surely feel the present revival can realistically catapult them considerably higher than midtable but, typically, the Spaniard is not getting carried away.

“I don’t want to really look at the table, I want to look at ourselves and how can we get better, the reasons why we are performing better and winning more matches and get that consistency we’ve been lacking,” he said after the match. “We are just trying to improve the team. Tomorrow is another day: review the game, train, improve in many areas that we have to get better so we’ll see where we get to.”

Lacazette should have put the visitors ahead inside the first minute when being sent through by Granit Xhaka only for the Frenchman to fire a shot straight at Alex McCarthy.

The game was only three minutes old but it was a testament to how well Arsenal had started that it felt Southampton took the lead against the run of play. James Ward-Prowse whipped in a cross at pace, Nicolas Pepe let Stuart Armstrong go and the Saints midfielder steered a fine shot past Bernd Leno.

Whereas Arsenal mustered little by way of response when falling behind on Saturday, here they continued to push on unabated. Xhaka slipped in Pepe, starting his first Premier League game since Dec. 19, and the club-record £72 million signing slotted the ball home.

This was one of Pepe’s more productive evenings, but he was again outshone by Saka, who collected Lacazette’s clever early pass to round McCarthy and score six minutes before the break. Cedric, another maligned player to enjoy an encouraging evening, played a sumptuous cross-field pass for Saka to collect, get to the byline and square a fine cross for Lacazette to tap home, rendering the final 18 minutes a comfortable conservation of energy.

Hasenhuttl highlighted his team’s shortcomings afterwards by admitting he wants to sign a full-back before the transfer window closes on Monday, and it is difficult to escape the conclusion Arsenal’s greater squad depth helped them on this occasion.

Perhaps noting the criticism Arteta received for his team selection in the wake of Saturday’s FA Cup exit, the 38-year-old sought to rewrite the narrative around that game by insisting only two of the seven changes he made last weekend were not enforced, a point he underlined by Smith Rowe coming off 18 minutes from time with a muscular problem, followed by Partey six minutes later.

“Just to make it clear in the FA Cup game, we had five players who were not available to play,” he said. “We made seven changes and five of them were because they were not ready to play the game. Smith Rowe was one and Thomas was another. We have to manage and protect those players and sometimes they are not fit but we cannot explain every single day how everyone is feeling.”

Whatever the reality, Arsenal’s priorities this season lie beyond the FA Cup and performances like this make bigger goals feel closer to hand.

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