Arsenal are not done with their pursuit of Champions League football just yet. This ultimately felt a hugely impressive victory, secured in spite of their own initial lethargy, and prised from awkward opponents on the south coast to ensure this team carry their hopes of a top-four finish into the final week of the campaign. They still require Liverpool or Manchester City to be wasteful in the few games which remain, but, given how dismal this season has been at times, Arsène Wenger will surely take leading the chase.
A couple of timely reminders of his team’s underlying talent, flashes of skill and vision inevitably delivered by Alexis Sánchez, amid plenty of weary huff and puff eventually eased them beyond Southampton. The Chilean had hovered on the periphery of a spluttering game until the hour-mark when Granit Xhaka and, expertly, Mesut Özil shifted the ball at pace between backpedalling defenders and to the forward as he hovered on the edge of the penalty area.
His first touch was cushioned on the spin, his second a snap of his right foot to leave Maya Yoshida and Jack Stephens, preparing to block, utterly flummoxed. Both centre-halves had anticipated an instant shot but ended up bypassed by the speed of the shift in Sánchez’s body weight. The Japanese was prone on the turf as the forward, having created his own space, calmly placed his finish past Fraser Forster. “The goal he scored shows what he’s about: very good technique in a tight space,” said Wenger. “He has invention in his head.
“He’s creative, not fazed by anything, and he surprised everyone in the stadium tonight with his goal. Everyone was expecting him to take a shot, but he’s very quick on the move. He scores important goals. He didn’t score tonight in a 5-0.” It was the kind of contribution which settles tight contests, and an intervention which established him as the first Arsenal player to score 20 league goals in a season since Robin van Persie back in 2012. In truth, it was merely the latest reminder of how key Sánchez has become to this club’s ambition. How this club must crave securing him to a new long-term deal.
Southampton, the brighter side up to that point, wilted in pursuit when suddenly confronted by opponents clinging to a lead. It did not come as much of a surprise when Sánchez, glancing up while in possession on the left flank, floated a fine pass to the far post where Aaron Ramsey nodded back and Olivier Giroud, only just introduced to the fray, headed down and in from close range. Arsenal had not won in a top-flight game in this stadium since Wenger’s team were en route to becoming Invincibles back in late 2003. The forwards’ plunder ensured their most daunting remaining fixture had been cleared, and the games with Stoke, Sunderland and Everton no longer feel quite as onerous. Four wins in five league matches since they were humiliated at Selhurst Park have injected momentum back into this team’s approach.
They were grateful, too, for the contribution of Petr Cech and his revamped backline. Shkodran Mustafi, the central pivot of the back three in the absence of Laurent Koscielny with calf trouble, summoned a notable block to check Dusan Tadic in his stride while the goalkeeper denied Nathan Redmond from 30 yards having earlier thwarted Manolo Gabbiadini. The Italian’s bright start to life in England has rather petered out of late, with a shot into the side-netting and a mistimed flick at the near-post extending his scoreless run to 396 minutes in the Premier League. He is starting to sport a trudge which hints at despair.
That frustration is shared by his manager, with Claude Puel muttering post-match about a lack of “a good clinical edge” in his team’s approach. “Every game is ‘interesting’, but just not enough,” he said. “All the games are the same, from the beginning of the season. We’ve had the same feeling: opportunities, chances, good play, but no clinical edge.”
That benefited Arsenal here, for all that the visitors had lacked their own bite for an hour. There was a legginess to their tempo up to Sánchez’s opener, as if a campaign that has lurched too often into disappointment was anchoring energy levels.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain felt his hamstring before the break and limped away, a worry for the last three games and FA Cup final, and the midfield was rather one-paced whenever Özil and Sánchez were not involved. At least Héctor Bellerín injected some zest, his burst to the byline in first-half stoppage time almost jolting his team-mates out of their malaise, even if Stephens did enough to suffocate Danny Welbeck’s header in the middle.
Life became simpler after the break, when the visitors were more imposing to ensure Wenger’s aspirations to reach the Champions League for a 19th year in succession remain intact.
His team have hoisted themselves to fifth place, three points off Manchester City and four from Liverpool. Both Pep Guardiola and Jürgen Klopp will be uneasy to find the usual suspects hovering unnervingly on their shoulder. The chase is on.