Southampton Battle Arsenal to a 3-3 Draw
It almost happened. It really almost happened. What would’ve been a massive three points for the Saints in their struggle against relegation was cruelly stolen away by a Martin Ødegaard wonderstrike and a cool Bukayo Saka finish. Armel Bella-Kotchap will be replaying his failed clearance leading to the Saka equalizer in his head for years to come. Three points away at the Emirates, it was right there!
The Saints could not have asked for a better start. Arsenal keeper Aaron Ramsdale received a ball over the top and instead of a simple clearance had a moment of madness and gifted Southampton midfielder Carlos Alcaraz the ball at the edge of the box. Alcaraz still had a lot to do with the finish, and beautifully put one just out of the reach of the redemption-seeking Ramsdale into the bottom corner. Alcaraz has been a diamond in a rough season for Southampton, showing excellent composure and a rare bit of final-third quality for the Saints. Should Southampton get relegated, the nineteen-year-old will have no shortage of suitors in the offseason.
But it somehow got even better for Southampton. Much was made over Selles’ refusal to play with a traditional striker, but the Saints’ compact, high-pressing system produced another goal. Another forced turnover found its way to Alcaraz, who drove at the Arsenal backline and played a wonderfully weighted ball to Theo Walcott who slotted home from just inside the box.
It would not be unfair to ask where this finishing ability was for the past several weeks, but it is just like the 2023 Saints to look lifeless against all their relegation rivals but put three past the league leaders. Of Southampton’s twenty-four Premier League points this season, eight have come against big six opposition Chelsea, Tottenham, and Arsenal.
With the Saints up two-nil after fifteen minutes, fans (and this writer) were in dreamland. But Arsenal quickly regained their composure and found a response in the twentieth minute. Bukayo Saka, who gave Romain Perraud fits all game long, gained the byline and found Gabriel Martinelli who slotted a half-volley past Southampton keeper Gavin Bazunu.
The game would remain two-one until halftime, with Arsenal having most of the possession and chances. Starting center-back Jan Bednarek was forced off due to a head injury just before halftime, and showed real passion attempting to convince the Southampton and Arsenal physios he could stay on. If the Saints find momentum to stay up this season, the dedication the much-maligned Bednarek showed will be a moment to look back on.
Rubén Sellés Makes a Tactical Gamble in the Second Half
It was when Southampton took the field for the second half that the real controversy started to unfold. Rubén Sellés decided to take off Carlos Alcaraz, who had already contributed a goal, an assist, and a goal-line clearance, for Lyanco, who has been banished from the first team for the past several months. Southampton were committing to ‘parking the bus’ and switched from their 4-2-2-2 into a 5-4-1. Sellés’ message was clear: we may not score another goal, but Arsenal is going to have to work for every chance they get.
But score another goal the Saints did. After twenty-five minutes of Arsenal besieging Gavin Bazunu’s box, on a rare foray forward Southampton won a corner. The Saints have been woeful from corners all season despite the quality dead ball delivery of James Ward-Prowse. Against Crystal Palace, they tried all kinds of trickery, including short passes and having Kamaldeen Sulemana act as a decoy corner taker to find some kind of set piece danger. But here the Saints captain fired a simple ball into the six-yard box, it was flicked on by Armel Bella-Kotchap onto Duje Ćaleta-Car’s head. Three-one to the Saints, and a miracle victory was on the cards.
But for each moment of absolute delight, football brings cruelty as well. Even though Southampton had a comfortable two-goal lead, cracks were showing in the Saints defense. Arsenal had been relentlessly attacking Southampton since Sellés made his gamble to switch tactics, and eventually the league leaders’ quality shone through. Martin Ødegaard fired in a wonderful, curled effort from twenty yards out in the 88th minute, and before ninety minutes were up Arsenal had equalized through Bukayo Saka.
Dreamland for Southampton fans turned into unfathomable anxiety, as Arsenal still had a massive eight minutes of injury time to find a winner. But the Saints held on, enduring wave after wave of Arsenal attack, including a Leandro Trossard effort that clipped the crossbar on its way over the net.
And so, after the emotional roller coaster that was Southampton’s away fixture at the Emirates, Saints fans will look back and rue a missed opportunity for what would’ve been an invaluable three points. If before the game you had offered a draw, 99% of Southampton fans, and probably most of the players, would’ve accepted it instantly. But after being two-nil and three-one up, once again, Southampton have missed an opportunity to gain ground in a fiendishly tight relegation battle.
Much will be made of Sellés’ decision to remove his most potent attacking threat in Carlos Alcaraz. Southampton never looked like scoring from open play after Alcaraz was removed, it was only from a set piece that they found their third goal. Introducing Lyanco and moving to five at the back did stymie Arsenal for 43 minutes, but there were 45 to be played, and the title hopefuls would not be denied. Could the Saints have fared better sticking to their first-half plan? We will never know.
After the dust had settled, both teams’ players collapsed to the ground exhausted. What should’ve been a fantastic point for bottom feeders Southampton felt like a loss. What should’ve been another notch on Arsenal’s title belt turned into disaster. Both teams needed a win, and both teams came away with a well-earned, well-deserved, but unwanted point. If Southampton take momentum from this match and survive this season, they will look back on this game with pride. If they are relegated, they will look back and wonder what if they had held on. Such are the fine margins in the Premier League. The Saints have six games left to save their season, let us all hope they can find whatever possessed them against Arsenal and keep that form going, or else the dark abyss of the Championship beckons.