As the wind and rain swirled around St Mary’s, an Arsenal side propelled by the exuberance of Bukayo Saka swept aside Southampton to exact revenge and record a fifth win in six Premier League matches. Nicolas Pépé cancelled out Stuart Armstrong’s sweet opener before goals by Saka and Alexandre Lacazette helped Arsenal train their sights on the top four after jumping to eighth, although almost all of those above them have games in hand.
At times Arsenal flowed from back to front with the ease of yesteryear and, for Mikel Arteta, this result goes a long way to justifying his weakened selection in the FA Cup defeat here last weekend. Better still, the absent Kieran Tierney should return against Manchester United on Saturday, when the incoming Martin Ødegaard could debut.
Saka celebrated his goal by making a heart shape with his hands and when Lacazette capped the scoring, he poignantly spelled out the number 14, a nod to Pierre-Emerick Aubemeyang, who remains absent owing to personal reasons. Arteta dedicated victory to his captain. “I love how they support each other and how they protect each other,” Arteta said. “Auba is having a difficult time. We are all behind him and this win is for him.”
This game was played at such a frenetic pace one could be forgiven for thinking this was a knockout competition. Southampton took the lead inside three minutes when Armstrong met James Ward-Prowse’s corner to send a rasping half-volley beyond Bernd Leno. Jack Stephens’ dummy run fooled Pépé and Armstrong thundered towards the penalty spot to finish. Eight of Southampton’s last 10 league goals have stemmed from set plays.
Arteta acknowledged defeat in the Cup exposed much room for improvement but for the Southampton pair stepping into the boots of the first-choice full-backs Ryan Bertrand and Kyle Walker-Peters, who were missing through suspension and injury respectively, it proved a cruel lesson. Yan Valery was caught the wrong side of Pépé for Arsenal’s equaliser and on the opposite flank Jake Vokins was caught cold by Saka’s incisive run, when Arsenal seized the lead six minutes before the interval. The reborn Granit Xhaka, who effortlessly slipped in Pépé for the equaliser, again proved the catalyst, this time feeding Lacazette, whose exquisite first-time pass found Saka. He coolly rounded Alex McCarthy before firing into an empty net.
Ralph Hasenhüttl bemoaned his side’s naivety, acknowledging they were soft goals that exposed a skeleton squad nursing injuries to key players. “We are definitely running out of players at the moment,” he said. “But we shouldn’t be too negative, we have 29 points and we knew such a situation could come. We know we are a good team if everything is perfect and we are in good shape. It looks like they have a little bit more quality than we have.”
This was the third meeting between these sides in six weeks and there was a sense of deja vu in the manner in which Southampton presented Arsenal with a flurry of early chances. First, Jan Bednarek was guilty of gifting possession straight to Xhaka, who sent Lacazette clear through on goal inside 50 seconds, only for the returning McCarthy to deny the striker. Then Arsenal’s equaliser stemmed from another sloppy pass out of defence. Stephens squandered possession cheaply, allowing Saka to retrieve the ball before Xhaka played in Pépé, who sent a crisp finish into the far corner.
Carlos Cuesta, the Arsenal assistant coach perched behind the away substitutes, relentlessly encouraged Cédric Soares, Emile Smith Rowe and Lacazette, in particular, to squeeze the Southampton back line into awkward avenues. Leno saved superbly from Che Adams in the first half and the Arsenal goalkeeper had to be alert in the second when Danny Ings danced into the box. Ings breezed beyond Thomas Partey, Héctor Bellerín and Rob Holding but at the byline a towering Leno confronted him.
Willian replaced Smith Rowe with 20 minutes to play but the worry for the Saints remained taming Saka, who sent a curling effort wide when freed. They had been warned and, moments later Saka’s invention teed up Lacazette to finish and maintain the feelgood factor. “Bukayo is doing really well, all the time asking to train more and asking for areas where to improve,” Arteta said. “Scoring goals is definitely one of those things.”