Arsenal 3-2 Southampton: Swaths of empty seats make bigger statement than entertaining victory in a meaningless match
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Arsenal beat Southampton 3-2 in an entertaining game that meant little on Sunday lunchtime.
With the race for the top four almost out of reach, and fifth place simply meaning automatic qualification for the continent’s second tier competition the number of empty seats at the Emirates should make Josh Kroenke sit up and take notice – if not his father ‘Silent’ Stan Kroenke.
A brace from Danny Welbeck sandwiched by a Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang finish saw the Gunners always in control despite Shane Long and Charlie Austin levelling before Jack Stephens was sent off late in the game for indiscipline following a spat with Jack Wilshere.
Wenger made five changes from the team that beat CSKA Moscow 4-1 in the Europa League quarter final first leg at the Emirates.
Reiss Nelson made his first Premier League start for the Gunners, becoming the youngest player to do so since Serge Gnabry in 2013 against Swansea City.
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Southampton’s Shane Long – who prior to kick-off hadn’t scored a goal in a calendar year – started ahead of Charlie Austin for a Saints side that hadn’t beaten the Gunners in a league game in North London since 1987 when Danny Wallace grabbed a goal in a 1-0 win which halted a run of ten wins on the bounce.
Arsenal started the match with four wins on the trot fully expecting to make it five on a wet afternoon in front of swaths of empty seats and a dreadful atmosphere.
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However it was Southampton that started brightly.
James Ward-Prowse had a shot cleared off the line by Hector Bellerin on seven minutes after Dusan Tadic fed him with a clever pass. The Serbian then had a shot fly narrowly wide moments later.
The warning wasn’t heeded as the visitors went 1-0 up ten minutes later after Shane Long grabbed his fourth career goal against Arsenal. The Irishman prodded home in front of a lacklustre home defence lacking leadership, anticipation, positioning and tactical coherence after a cross from the right by Cedric.
Despite the poor atmosphere Arsenal rallied and hit back through Pierre-Emerick Aubemayang who sped through a leaden defence like the driver of a Lamborghini late for work to make it 1-1 just before the half hour mark.
The goal meant statistics showed Aubameyang has now been involved in seven league goals this term - six goals and one assist - the most of any Arsenal player in their first seven appearances for the club since 1992, the year football was invented.
Danny Welbeck then put the Gunners ahead after cutting inside and firing a right-footed shot that flew off the back of left-back Maya Yoshida and past keeper Alex McCarthy to put the home side 2-1 up seven minutes before the interval.
The second half saw the Saints equalise through Charlie Austin level to make it 2-2 on 73 minutes after a Cedric cross.
At that point Wenger abandoned all pretence of tactical shape and defensive nous by simply ordering his side to attack to win the game.
Welbeck narrowly failed to get on the end of a Wilshere cross after he hooked the ball back from the byline on 79 minutes.
Two minutes later the Gunners were ahead after good footwork from Iwobi allowed him to send a deep cross into the box. Welbeck simply rose higher than the static Saints defence to head home and make it 3-2 with nine minutes remaining.
There was only time for referee Andre Marriner to send off Stephens for showing indiscipline by hauling Wilshere to the ground after an ongoing tussle.
And as Marriner blew for the final whistle, yes it was an entertaining match, and yes it gained a result. But, hell-for-leather football is only appropriate as a Plan B – not as an ethos.
Because judging by the huge number of empty seats fans have simply grown tired of a side that can dispatch teams such as Southampton – but continually fail against sides better able to defend.
Still, at the least the club are putting in an extra 800 seats in Club Level for next season – who will buy them is another matter entirely.