Theo Walcott starts up front on his return to Saint Mary's as an Arsenal player. The away side lined up in their usual 4-2-3-1 shape with fancy footed Santi Cazorla operating in that free role behind the striker. Southampton were also in a similar formation. Rickie Lambert leading the attack with Gaston Ramirez in support.
Arsenal started off the game on the front foot: they passed well in midfield and moved the ball down the flanks. For the first 10 minutes of the game, the away side out-passed the Saints 76 to 22. Southampton withdrew deep inside their own half and defended compactly, working very hard off the ball, which limited the Gunners chances. But with their keeper Artur Boruc looking very shaky between the sticks, it looked as if an Arsenal goal was coming very soon. That turned out not to be the case.
After defending with a two solid banks of four in the early stages of the game, Southampton started to press harder in the midfield, especially when Arsenal were knocking the ball about in their own half. This aggressive pressing led to a period in which the Gunners were forced into making mistakes. This is a risky approach from the host because it needs a lot of energy from their players, and their back four will be vulnerable if Arsenal can get the ball to the likes of Santi Cazorla and Theo Walcott quickly.
The approach paid off though. Heavy pressing on Lukas Podolski forced the German to make a back pass to Laurent Koscielny, who also was closed down quickly by Guilherme Do Prado and gave the ball away under pressure, eventually leading to the Gaston Ramirez goal. In this particular play, there were six Southampton players focusing their energy on the left side of Arsenal defense.
Despite dominating possession for the majority of the first half, Arsene Wenger's men were not able to get Walcott, playing as their center forward, into the game. The winger-turned-striker received only 6 passes before the break, made only 4 and took exactly zero shots. Part of the reason was that Arsenal's passing was poor in the final third. They moved the ball rather slowly, allowing the home side's defense to reorganize, and when they did move the ball quickly, they failed to connect with their team-mates.
Secondly, the Gunners were also enjoying space on the flanks, especially on the right with Bacary Sagna bombing forward and making crosses. But Walcott wasn't the kind of big target man you want in the box when you deliver the ball from the wide areas. Of the 15 crosses Arsenal made in the first half, only one successfully reached a team-mate. They would equalize before the break, but it was through a Southampton mistake rather than anything Arsenal created. (Good free-kick from Walcott though.)
Three key points from the first half: (1) Arsenal started brightly, then faded; (2) Southampton compact in defense and pressed hard after the opening 15 minutes; (3) Walcott isolated on his own.
Arsene Wenger made his first change around the hour mark, bring on Olivier Giroud for Podolski. The French man took the center forward and Walcott was shifted to the right wing. This was the move that worked magic against Newcastle last time out; Giroud went on to score two goals and Walcott completed his hat trick in their demolishing of the Magpies.
This time around, the tactical move did spark a change in performance or fortune. Arsenal continued to make mistakes on and off the ball and didn't create that many chances. Their dominance on the flank also waned as they mustered only 7 crosses, as oppose to the 16 prior to Giroud's introduction. They changed the physical presence in the box with that substitution, but overall sloppiness in passing and movement stayed the same.
If there was to be a winner in this game, Southampton looked the more likely. Nigel Adkins would make three like-for-like changes in the second half and kept the pressure on Arsenal when they could. Their main goal threat came from Jason Puncheon who had an outstanding game on the right flank. The winger was always open to receive a forward pass in his zone and attack the visitors' goal very directly, testing Wojciech Szczesny on a number of occasions. Puncheon fired the most shots in this game with 4 attempts and all of them came in the second half.
Three key points from the second half: (1) Arsenal brought physical presence up front with Giroud; (2) but their overall game was still poor; (3) Puncheon posed a major threat.