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ARSENAL head-coach Mikel Arteta has praised the hungry young core of his side who ground out a hard-fought 2-0 win over 10-man Southampton on Thursday.
Goals either side of the break from youngsters Eddie Nketiah and Joe Willock in the sweltering South Coast sunshine were enough to give the Gunners their first victory since the league’s resumption.
“Eddie, since I joined the maturity and personality that he plays every game with is incredible,” the Spaniard began. “I demand a lot from our forward players to put the opponent under pressure and they’ve done it.”
“In that heat, to keep chasing players and putting them under pressure, sometimes it’s not really a nice thing to do. But obviously, when you get a goal from the mistakes they’ve made it’s really important.”
The 21-year old rewarded the faith shown by his manager in issuing him with a starting berth when he made the breakthrough after 20-minutes to set the tone for the evening in the visitors’ favour.
Defying the 31-degree heat, the striker got his just reward for hounding the Saints defenders, nicking the ball off goalkeeper Alex McCarthy and slotting it into an empty net.
St Mary’s has not been a happy hunting ground for the North Londoners in recent times. Their previous eight league visits here have produced just a single miserly victory. The game sat on a knife-edge for the next 60-minutes as Southampton grew into the game and the visitor’s clung onto their slim one-goal cushion.
Arsenal have known all too well the feeling of squandering a lead recently. They’ve lost 10 points from winning positions in 12 league matches under their new manager. It wasn’t until Southampton were reduced to 10-men in the 85th-minute that the three points truly felt within the visitors’ grasp.
Jack Stephens was sent off for a poor a challenge on Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang after incessant pressing by the Gunners forced yet another defensive mishap. From the resulting free-kick, substitute Joe Willock was quickest to pounce on McCarthy’s save and fired into the net to double his side’s lead and wedge some daylight between the teams.
Until that moment, Ralph Hasenhuttl’s outfit would have fancied themselves to take one of their chances and snatch an equaliser. The best opportunity was Shane Long’s powerful half-volley which forced a brilliant save from Emi Martinez, deputising for the injured Bernd Leno, just 10-minutes from time. It was a hugely significant moment given the undoubted shift in momentum the match would have taken if the Irishman had found the net.
For Arsenal, there were less tangible but far more important things at stake than three points. 18-year-old Bukayo Saka shone once again in midfield. Rob Holding won all of his duels and made a total of eight clearances as he continues to rediscover his best form.
Kieran Tierney provided more evidence of the quality that has made him one of the most exciting young defenders in the division. This was a victory for Arteta’s long-term Arsenal vision: an emphasis on character, leadership and application.
Before the game, the head coach issued a bold statement to his group by omitting Matteo Guendouzi from the matchday squad after the Frenchman’s clash with Brighton’s Neal Maupay in their last outing.
It’s hoped that a sense of sorrow at seeing his side triumph without him will cause the midfielder to reflect on a petulant streak that has become an unwelcome feature of his game.
The zero-tolerance approach to perceived lack of discipline — also evidenced by Mesut Ozil’s conspicuous absence once again — is a policy less aimed at moulding individuals as much as forging a collective DNA that’s been missing ever since Arsene Wenger departed.
“Whatever issue we have internally, I will resolve it in a private way,” the 38-year-old insisted.
“The messages that I send to the team or individually are very open and I’m clear with how I feel. Winning is the most important thing and when you win, everything is fine.”
It was not their most convincing performance under of Arteta’s short reign so far, but in the battle to win the hearts and minds of those individuals key to unlocking a brighter future, this was just what the doctor ordered.
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