Szczesny returned back from his rib injury at the goal. Carl Jenkinson continued at right back. Per Mertesacker and Thomas Vermaalen were the two centerbacks and Kieran Gibbs kept his starting place at left back.
In central midfield, Mikel Arteta was paired with Francis Coquelin, as Abou Diaby was nursing a minor hip injury. Santi Cazorla again occupied the most advanced midfield position.
The front three had Oxlade Chamberlain on the right, Podolski on the left and Gervinho starting as the central striker with Giroud left on the bench. In practice, however, Arsenal had a classic strikerless formation due to the movement of Gervinho up-front as explained below.
Gervinho does not have many of the qualities of a target man. He is not good in the air, cannot shield the ball well and he is physically too lightweight to play with his back to the goal. His strengths are his lightning quickness and unpredictable movement on and off the ball (unpredictable to the extent that sometimes Arsenal fans wonder if he himself knows where he is going). These strengths were put to great use against Southampton: Gervinho did not wait for a cross in the box, nor he lurked on the shoulder of the Southampton centerbacks for a ball through the center. Instead, he dropped deeper into wide areas, got the ball in his feet facing the goal and made runs at the Southampton defense with or without the ball. He basically played the centre forward position just like the winger that he is.
Gervinho’s refusal to occupy the position reserved for a classic centre forward meant that the two Southampton center-backs Jos Hooiveld and Jose Fonte had nobody to mark. Instead, time and time again, they faced Podolski, Gervinho and Oxlade-Chamberlain running at them with the ball from wide or central positions. Furthermore, the Southampton back four inexplicably tried to defend deeper, which meant that whenever the visiting team’s midfielders pushed up to press Arsenal’s passing movement, huge gaps appeared between their lines, gaps that Santi Cazorla, in particular, cherished.
Arsenal started the game with the attacking intent of a wolve pack with Gervinho and Oxlade-Chamberlain finding early joy down the right flank. Their high tempo game and complete dominance paid off as early as the 11th minute when Podolski muscled his way with the ball through the center and slipped in the excellent Gibbs on the left. The young English left back had his shot parried away by Kelvin Davis, but the ball bounced back from Hooiveld to find the net for an own goal.
Despite the early goal, Arsenal did not slow the tempo at all and went for the jugular with the focus of a brain surgeon. A great passing move between Gervinho and Podolski on the left freed Gervinho whose shot was blocked. Another fantastic build-up play between Podolski and Cazorla released Gibbs on the left, who saw his cross headed wide by Gervinho arriving late in the box. With Arsenal pouring forward wave after wave in an ecstatic manner, the second goal came shortly after the half-hour mark: Coquelin was fouled in a central position while switching the play to the right, and from the resulting free-kick, Podolski fired a peach of a left-footed curler over the wall.
With Southampton neither being able to press high up the pitch nor able to defend deeper, Arsenal found two more goals in quick succession. Gervinho moved to a wide right position, made an angled run to receive Arteta’s delightful through ball and blasted it at the near post. Another mesmerizing quick passing move on the left saw Gervinho releasing Gibbs for the upteenth time, and Gibbs’ early cross was deflected in by Nathaniel Clyne for the second own goal of the game.
It was 4-0 after 37 minutes and Southampton wanted the half time whistle more than anything else in the world. They had only one attempt at Arsenal goal by that time, a mere long range effort. They were, however, gifted a goal at the last minute of half time: Szczesny spilled a routine deep cross into the path of Danny Fox who finished with a vengeance from 6 yards. For Arsenal, it was a miserable way to concede their first goal of the season as Szczesny’s lack of concentration marked a sharp contrast to the ultra-serious defensive attitude of the 10 men in front of him since the start of the season.
The second half started with Nigel Adkins sending in his new signing Gaston Ramirez and clearly instructing his side to play a high line, instead of getting picked at will by sitting deep. This change in tactics brought a marked improvement to Southampton’s performance as they started spending much more time in Arsenal’s half with the ball. Yet, they lacked the penetration to produce many chances. In their most dangerous attack, a long-range Gaston Ramirez shot going wide was met by Rickie Lambert who could not hit the target from point blank range.
In most of the second half Arsenal kept their busy attitude, but perhaps due to being more relaxed, they wasted many counterattack opportunities, almost all of which were set up by the majestic Santi Cazorla. Time and time again, Gervinho, Podolski and Oxlade-Chamberlain found good openings after being released by Cazorla, but failed in their final ball.
With the game all but won, Wenger replaced Coquelin with Ramsey to stir things up a bit, and the Welshman made an immediate impact. When Cazorla found Ramsey with one of his countless delightful balls, the substitute showed good skill on the ball to burst into the box. His shot bounced back from the post, but Gervinho finished the rebound almost on the goal line. The final Arsenal goal came two minutes from time when another move started by Cazorla was finished in the box by the substitute Walcott, who refused to celebrate against his old club.
This was at times a mouth-watering display by Arsenal especially in the first half. Gervinho excelled in the “mobile centre-forward who plays like a winger” role and Southampton had no answer for Arsenal’s lethal movement. The man of the match for me was Santi Cazorla who had yet another masterful performance as “Supreme Conductor.” Gibbs pillaged and plundered on the left all game long like a pirate of the Caribbean: he showed great understanding with Podolski who looked very at home in the wide left position. The defensive attitude of the team was again top-notch, the only disappointing point being Szczesny’s moment of lack of concentration that cost the team a much deserved fourth consecutive clean sheet. The young Polish goalkeeper also reminded the Arsenal fans that he really needs to work after hours on his distribution with his feet.