The Arsenal verdict: Two dropped points that could prove so costly
With Manchester City and Chelsea the next two league opponents, the Gunners could regret drawing at Southampton
No wonder Arsene Wenger was angry. After all the hard work to rebuild confidence and momentum at the back end of 2012, the new year started with a whimper.
Quite how the swashbuckling, seven-goal destroyers of Newcastle had metamorphosed into the timid, shot-shy outfit that struggled through 90 minutes at St Mary’s is anybody’s guess.
One shot on target, four in total. Those are damning statistics against a side Arsenal had thrashed 6-1 in the last meeting at the Emirates in September.
Have Southampton improved that much since then? Undeniably, yes, but the comfort with which they held the Gunners at bay in this game was almost beyond belief given that Wenger’s side arrived on the south coast on the back of four successive league wins in which they had scored 15 goals.
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The Gunners boss sent out the same 11 players that had pulverised Newcastle, yet they were almost totally ineffective as an attacking unit. It was a good thing for Arsenal that Guly Do Prado turned Theo Walcott’s free-kick into his own net because the visitors did not look remotely like doing it for themselves.
Walcott – his name has never been far from the headlines of late and yet this display was the other extreme to when he walked away from the Emirates with the match ball on Saturday. This was a performance which made you wonder if he really can play up front.
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Perhaps the occasion of returning to face his former club for the first time got to him. But against a committed and tenacious home defence, he barely had a kick.
Wenger’s patience lasted just 58 minutes before sending on Olivier Giroud and shunting Walcott back out to the flank. It may have been a little harsh given that Walcott was largely starved of service, but the message from the manager was clear: Walcott is still far from being the finished article.
All the recent comparisons to Thierry Henry overlook the fact that Henry often played with a strike partner, and that the Frenchman was six-foot plus and was a considerable physical presence.
On his own against a pair of centre-backs of small reputation but big commitment, Walcott looked lost. With Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain another homecoming Saint to turn in a disappointing display and Lukas Podolski anonymous on the other flank, the Gunners were short of bullets.
Usually they can rely on some inspiration from the central areas, but Santi Cazorla and Jack Wilshere were well-shackled by the likes of Morgan Schneiderlin and Steven Davis, and the supply line was cut.
Wenger has seen many such days, and would usually turn to his bench to change the game. But the introduction of Giroud and then Aaron Ramsey and Gervinho failed to add spark. Southampton came closer to winning the game in the final 10 minutes, and Arsenal could not have complained if the hosts had done so.
A draw away from home can never be a disastrous result. But the sight of all their rivals reeling off festive victories has left the Gunners playing catch-up. They are five points behind Spurs and, even with a game in hand, that is a worrying statistic given that the next two league games are against the current champions of England and Europe, Manchester City and Chelsea.
Fail to win both of those and the spectre of trailing their north London rivals by 10 points by February, just as they did last season, could be an uncomfortable d�j� vu for the Gunners. Last season they reeled them in, but that took a minor miracle, and a certain Robin van Persie.
Chelsea also faltered badly last season as, ultimately, did the surprise package Newcastle. But Rafael Benitez has steadied the ship at Stamford Bridge and Roman Abramovich will doubtless flex his muscles in the transfer market again this month.
Wenger has money available to do the same and, as he stormed off into the night at St Mary’s you wondered if, for once, he might think about spending it this time around.
He will know that his free-scoring side from Saturday can have an off night, but there have been too many of those in this campaign; Norwich, Swansea, Bradford of course.
With the way the Premier League table and the second half of the season is shaping up, Wenger knows his side cannot afford many more.