A routine win and a clean sheet against a bottom-half side used to be the least you expect of Arsenal. Now it comes as welcome relief.
Relief from what has been a restart to forget: of five goals conceded, one scored and two defeats. Football’s return to lift the nation’s spirits had yet to register in the red part of north London. Finally, though, there are points and a win to lift the dark mood, even for a moment.
For a team looking to catch a break, there aren’t many better places to travel: away to the team who possess the worst home record in the league. But they would not have expected the scale of Southampton’s hospitality that led to the visitors’ opener.
Goalkeeper Alex McCarthy had two open passes on to his left and right, but decided on the third straight ahead which was inhibited by Eddie Nketiah. The 21-year old’s block ended up being the perfect first touch, beyond the embarrassed McCarthy and towards the now empty net for his fifth from seven starts in all competitions this season.
The previous 20 minutes had given both protagonists contrasting experiences. Nketiah had the ball in the net as early as the eighth minute but was ruled out for Buyako Saka breaking beyond the Siants backline too early.
That was followed by a glaring miss from Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang that only after forensic analysis could be attributed to McCarthy as a save. Kieran Tierney’s ball over the top set Aubameyang free, and the striker was able to get as close as the left corner of the six-yard box before side-footing off the underside of the bar. A few replays were required before the flick of a left glove was detected.
Typically, for any game involving Arsenal, the rest of the second-half was spent waiting for the punchline. Surely this was to be another game with a sting, just as it was on Saturday when they spurned the lead and then the points in added time.
A botched opportunity to register some insurance when Aubameyang took down a fine pass from Emiliano Martinez but was stopped from finding a free Nketiah by a fantastic sliding intervention from Jan Bednarek. And so the mind began to wonder.
Space for Nathan Redmond at the far post saw a chest and volley ripple the outside of the side-netting as a warning shot. And five minutes later, Shane Long broke beyond the defence to smash a left-footed effort towards the far top corner.
Martinez however, on his first start since April 2017, had other ideas, not only sticking out a firm left-hand but quickly getting back on his feet to claim the rebound with Danny Ings loitering.
That insurance did eventually come with five minutes still to play. A heavy pass back to last man Jack Stephens saw him lunge at the ball as Aubameyang was about to pick it off him on the edge of the box. The straight red was inevitable.
Though the opportunity from the free-kick was not taken straightaway – Alexandre Lacazette firing straight at the wall – the follow-up (Lacazette again) was too hot for McCarthy to handle, allowing Joe Willock to profit for a first goal in 26 Arsenal appearances.
It was a goal that put to bed those lingering fears and gave Arsenal fan respite from the worries that are still in need of addressing by the club. Worries pertaining, in most part, to identify.
As such, Willock’s goal should hopefully represent more. He became the third Arsenal player aged 20 or younger to score this season, after Nketiah and Gabriel Martinelli – the most of any side in the division.
Along with Rob Holding’s (24) dominant performance in the centre of defence and the industry of Buyako Saka (18) down the left, the future may not be as bleak as it seems.