Sense of deja vu
Many days in the last 10 months or so might have felt identical to one another amid a certain ongoing pandemic, and that feeling has been somewhat augmented by the recent spate of repeated fixtures.
This top-flight meeting between the Saints and the Gunners was the second encounter between the two teams in four days, following their FA Cup clash on Saturday.
Prior to Arsenal’s two trips to St Mary’s this month, we saw Mikel Arteta’s side host Newcastle twice in a week-and-a-half – also since the turn of the year. Furthermore, rivals Manchester United and Liverpool this month took turns hosting one another in yet another cup-league mini-series, with the highly-anticipated first fixture followed by a slightly less highly-anticipated second game seven days later.
Reverse fixtures are most common at this time of year as the second half of the season begins, but the impact the pandemic has had on teams’ schedules has meant repetitive match-ups – in part between leagues and cup competitions – have come in quicker succession and more noticeably than in the past.
Platform for Pepe
Nicolas Pepe is not known for stone-cold clinics in front of goal, but he took Arsenal’s equaliser well on Tuesday night, showing positional awareness and strength before the finish.
The timing of his goal was significant in its placement in the match, cancelling out Stuart Armstrong’s early opener within five minutes of the Southampton midfielder’s strike, and Pepe will hope the timing of his goal will also be significant in its placement in the season.
This fixture marked the start of the second half of Arsenal’s Premier League campaign, and with Pepe, 25, having scored just twice in the division in 12 previous top-flight appearances this term, the Ivory Coast winger must look to use Tuesday’s goal as a platform to increase the effectiveness of his striking output.
To focus on Pepe’s goal without acknowledging Armstrong’s would be unfair, though the Scot’s contributions certainly did not cease after his third-minute opener.
The Southampton midfielder’s performance was a vibrant and influential one, full of effort and quality.
James Ward-Prowse, with his eye-catching deliveries and creative spark, has been the diamond of the Saints’ midfield in recent times, but Armstrong’s recent showings suggest he is becoming similarly valuable to coach Ralph Hasenhuttl.
Understanding a club
Frank Lampard, a legend at Chelsea as a player, was afforded no more time as manager than the next man on the street would be.
Dismissed on Monday after a tepid season-and-a-half in charge, the former Blues midfielder surely knew that this would be his fate. Surely he was not labouring under the same delusion affecting many Chelsea fans: that his history with the west Londoners would leave his fate unsealed at least a little while longer.
He knows the club too well for that. Similarly, Arteta knows Arsenal.
Perhaps more clearly than anyone else at the Emirates, the Spaniard understands what they are, but also what they should be. Both points in combination suggest that the former Arsenal midfielder will be afforded the time as Gunners coach that Lampard was not as Chelsea manager.
Gunners on the charge
Arsenal are unbeaten in the Premier League in 2021 following an encouraging response to a worrying stretch of form late last year.
As a result, the north London side are eighth in the standings, just five points from fourth place.
Of course, they have played three more matches than the teams either side of them in the table and a couple more than a number of other clubs in the division, but they shouldn’t worry too much about that for now.
Arsenal should simply focus on their current purple match; if they keep winning games, the endeavours of the teams around them will begin to matter less and less.