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ARSENAL eased past Southampton with goals from Nicolas Pepe, Bukayo Saka and Alexandre Lacazette after an early Stuart Armstrong strike put the home side ahead, as the Gunners moved into eighth place, five points off West Ham in fourth spot.
On a rain-lashed evening on the south coast, Mikel Arteta’s side won their first match from a losing position since they beat Liverpool last July — and their first comeback in any competition against a Premier League side since reversing a deficit against Chelsea in the 2020 FA Cup final.
The victory at St Mary’s on Tuesday evening was also revenge for the north Londoners, after Ralph Hasenhuttl’s side knocked the holders out of the world’s oldest knock-out tournament at the weekend.
Arsenal made five changes from the side that lost 1-0 to Saints on Saturday, with Gabriel, Mohamed Elneny, Willian, Gabriel Martinelli and Eddie Nketiah benched.
In came David Luiz, Thomas Partey, Emile Smith Rowe, Saka and Lacazette, as the evening victory justified Arteta fielding a weaker side three days previously.
Southampton drafted Alex McCarthy back in goal with Fraser Forster stepping down, while Yan Valery and Jake Vokins made the starting XI in place of first choice full backs Ryan Betrand (suspension) and Kyle Walker-Peters (injury) after being unused substitutes in Saturday’s game, which saw the home side land their first FA Cup victory over the Gunners in five attempts.
However, despite Armstrong’s early strike, there was to be no second win on the bounce against a defensively obdurate Gunners.
In a lively start to the third clash between these two teams in barely six weeks, Lacazette was foiled by an alert McCarthy in the opening seconds, with both sets of players barely standing up after taking the knee prior to kick-off.
In a breathless opening, the visitors went 1-0 down after 180 seconds following James Ward-Prowse’s outswinging corner.
The early goal was a good way to mark the captain’s 300th game in Southampton colours, made even sweeter by Armstrong’s fierce strike, after Jack Stephens’s dummy run drew Pepe to make space for the 28-year-old Scottish international to fire past Bernd Leno in a crowded box.
Yet, Arteta’s side were level at 1-1 only five minutes later, when Pepe eased past Valery, to slot home his third league goal of the season.
In a first half of chances, Arsenal’s 4-2-3-1 formation did little to prevent former Gunners wideman Theo Walcott from breaking through, before firing narrowly wide.
In an entertaining spell ex-Saints defender Cedric Soares showed his excellent technique in cleanly connecting with a volley that almost troubled McCarthy.
Bellerin picked up his seventh booking this season — more than any other player in the top flight — for scything down the dangerous Armstrong, when perhaps he could have stayed on his feet and ushered the attacker down the line.
With six minutes to go until the interval, in swirling conditions, Saka put Arsenal 2-1 ahead.
The talented teenager showed his quality by rounding an onrushing McCarthy, before slotting home into an empty net with his weaker foot to make it four goals in his last six league starts.
The eruption of joy from the north Londoners at such a mature finish to cap an eye-catching turnaround must also have included kudos for Lacazette’s perceptive through ball.
The intensity of the Saints side understandably dipped after such admirable pressing over the previous game and a half, with boss Hasenhuttl lamenting afterwards that he felt his team were “running out of players.”
As Southampton battled for a foothold in the game during a hard-fought second half, Lacazette made it 3-1 on 72 minutes, after slotting home from a Saka cross, following good work by the impressive Cedric, who had another excellent game.
The former Lyon striker’s goal made it seven in his last 11 away games in the league — after previously going 17 months without netting on the road, as Arteta’s vibrant Arsenal team celebrated victory in the rain.
How things changed so quickly in football.
Two months ago Chelsea, under Frank Lampard, were top, while excitable Gunners fans were calling for Arteta’s head.
Fast forward to the end of January and Arsenal are chasing a top four spot, while the Chelsea legend has already been replaced by Thomas Tuchel at Stamford Bridge.
With Manchester United — another side who have benefited from allowing time for a former player to flourish at the helm — due at Ashburton Grove on Saturday, the clash will provide a gauge for the ongoing progress of Arteta’s squad.
“I love how they support each other and how they protect each other,” said a delighted Arteta afterwards.
With Kieran Tierney set to return, and the squad to be bolstered by the imminent arrival of loanee Martin Odegaard from Real Madrid, the mouth-watering fixture is already setting the pulses racing.
As do Arteta’s Arsenal once again these days.
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