Kieran Gibbs and Gervinho celebrate a goal neither of them really "scored"
Well, that was a bit of fun, wasn't it? Arsenal shook off the rust from a two-week international break and dominated newly-promoted Southampton from kickoff, scoring six times and never really looking threatened. Unfortunately the defense's shutout streak was broken after some dodgy goalkeeping, but for the most part, the Arsenal were running on all cylinders and Soton were outclassed.
Ahead of a tough week where they'll play a Champions League match and travel to the reigning English champions, Arsenal definitely needed a game like this.
Arsenal started fresh, keeping the ball, circulating well, and running Southampton off the pitch for the first ten minutes. They looked ready to score from the start, and quickly cashed in their dominance in the 11th minute. Lukas Podolski lost the ball in midfield but powered through the ballwinner, re-taking possession with his strength. He moved into the box and played the ball diagonally slightly forward to Kieran Gibbs, who cut in and put the ball on goal. Whether it was an intended cross or shot is unclear, but when Soton's Joos Hooiveld tapped the ball over the line, it didn't matter all that much - Gibbs had done the job, and Arsenal had a 1-0 lead.
Arsenal didn't let up, continuing to maintain plenty of possession and create chances. Much of the action was centered on Mikel Arteta and Gervinho going both ways - both were very active defensively, and effective going forward, particularly Gervinho. Just after the half-hour mark, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, given the start against his former team, drew a corner that Arsenal played short, and the move culminated in Steven Davies fouling Francis Coquelin (starting in place of star man Abou Diaby) just at the top of the box. Podolski and Santi Cazorla stood over the ball; I said aloud "oh, just let Santi take it." Instead, Poldi curved a left-footed shot over the wall and past a poorly-positioned Kelvin Davis to double Arsenal's lead. It was about as good as a free kick can be, and the German became Arsenal's first multiple-goal scorer in the young season.
Then, madness. Five minutes later Arteta and Gervinho combined for a beautiful goal, as the Spaniard lobbed a perfect pass over the Soton defense to the Ivorian, who didn't dither in his first start as a striker for Arsenal and fired a laser to Davis' left by the post and in. The pass was reminiscent of those often played by last year's holding midfielder, and the result was Arteta's first assist of the year. Then seemingly immediately Arsenal were attacking again, and another Gibbs ball to the box - almost definitely a cross this time - ended up in the back of the net, this time off the foot of Nathaniel Clyne. Coming in the hope was that Olivier Giroud would be able to get his first Arsenal goal, but instead it was Own Goal who had a brace. In about six minutes Arsenal went from one up to four, and they were rolling. The team had rapport, knew where the other players were, moved the ball well, attacked with and without possession.
The one dark spot of the first half was the first goal in Arsenal's net this year - a ball in the box was handled poorly by 'keeper Wojciech Szczesny in his first game back from injury, who flapped at it and missed, and Daniel Fox made no mistake with the rebound. The clean sheet streak was broken, and Szczesny's poor play throughout makes one wonder whether he was fully fit and ready to play. The lead was 4-1 at halftime, and though the lead was a safe one, the late goal left a bitter taste.
As the second period began Southampton looked much better than in the first, keeping possession for long stretches and playing some good football. They were able to play directly when the opportunity arose, but concentrated on a good passing game and looked good doing it. in the 57th minute they created a good chance; Gaston Ramirez played a diagonal ball on the ground through the box, and Rickie Lambert just missed putting the ball past Szczesny. It was a shaky moment for the Arsenal defense (possibly the shaky moment) but it was caused by some very good football from the visitors.
But Arsenal were just too good. In the 67th minute Aaron Ramsey replaced Coquelin, who played well if unobtrusively, and four minutes later took a Cazorla pass into the box and put a placed shot off the far-side post. It bounced to Gervinho, who tapped in easily, joining Own Goal with a brace of his own. Ramsey deserved better, but Gervinho was worth his two goals as well.
He left the game a few minutes later as Theo Walcott entered, and Podolski exited for Giroud. The two nearly combined for a goal: Walcott broke on a counterattack ten minutes after coming on, and held the ball as defenders swarmed, ending up with nothing. The French striker had joined him in the box, though, and was free - if Walcott had acted quickly and centered the ball, Giroud would almost certainly have scored, and he was visibly annoyed. Just before the game's end, though, Walcott would make good. Cazorla (again) put Thomas Vermaelen through, and hos power shot was saved. The rebound came to Theo, and he finished simply for Arsenal's sixth, showing respect to his former club with a muted celebration. Soon after the whistle sounded, and Arsenal had the three points.
Despite the goal against, Arsenal's defense was good once again. Gibbs and Per Mertesacker both had very good performances, but the key was the captain Vermaelen, who is playing much better this year than he did last season. He was everywhere, and did a good job of managing his urges and staying back to defend, for the most part. He made forays forward late, but for the most part was a rock at the center of defense.
Less good were Szczesny, who was shaky both on the goal and also in his distribution. I have faith that this was mostly due to injury, but he will need to do better next weekend if Arsenal have any hope of beating Manchester City. Also shaky was Carl Jenkinson, whose inconsistency this year has me dreaming of Bacary Sagna's return. He's good in 1-v.-1 situations where he needs to pressure the ball and make tackles, but once he has the ball he sometimes forgets what a football is. His passing needs to improve if he is to succeed at this level, without a doubt.
But all in all, it was a superb performance from Arsenal, against a team that, while new to the league, stood toe-to-toe with both Manchester clubs in weeks prior. And this was an Arsenal side in rotation, with Diaby and Giroud both given rest ahead of this coming week, and Laurent Koscielny - last year's best defender - on the bench as well. When Ramsey, Giroud, and Walcott all started warming up, it started to become clear that if injuries can be managed, this could be a very deep, very good team. Calling them title challengers is premature (this was, after all, Southampton), but Arsenal are in third place at the moment behind only Chelsea and Manchester United, and ahead of City on goal differential (yep). It took Arsenal 14 matches last year - until the beginning of December - to get to a +7 differential, and this time last year we were in fifteenth place, -8 differential, with four points of 15 available. Be happy. This team does not suck.