The Gabon star ended an unwanted run against Southampton while the Ivory Coast wideman gave a solid, if unspectacular, performance on Wednesday night
It wasn’t what Arsenal completely wanted but there’s a feeling that’s where we are at with Mikel Arteta’s side; looking for positives like a needle in a haystack.
The Gunners played out a 1-1 draw with an in-form Southampton side, which ended a wretched run of four straight defeats on the spin. Losing five on the trot will have seen this current crop set the undesired record of suffering a quartet of losses on home turf for the first time in the club’s history (they’d initially lost four in succession 61 years ago).
Given the context of Wednesday, against Ralph Hasenhuttl’s side that rocked up at the Emirates Stadium on a five-game unbeaten run away from home while averaging 2.2 goals per game in that time, many observers felt the North London side were there for the taking.
In truth, the opening half-hour seemed to validate their pre-match thoughts. The visitors utterly dominated their illustrious hosts who seemed to play with fear, according to old boy Theo Walcott, scorer of the away side’s 18th-minute goal on his old stomping ground.
The mere fact that Arsenal responded after starting slowly was a step in the right direction and not letting the game get away from them was equally important.
Be that as it may, the biggest cheer — from supporters watching at home — likely came when Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang finally ended his and the club’s miserable run in front of goal. For the Gunners, the skipper’s well-dispatched effort after 52 minutes was the side’s first from open play in 13 hours and 17 minutes, a truly remarkable statistic given the club’s stature.
It was Auba’s first strike since that penalty away at Manchester United and it ended an extended run without scoring from open play since September 12 at Fulham. Going three months without an open-play strike was astonishing for someone with the Gabon star’s quality, but the London giants will hope Wednesday’s effort opens the floodgates.
As cliche as the aforementioned may seem, it certainly is reasonable particularly knowing how much his teammates lean on his final-third output.
“Hopefully it’s going to change everything dramatically and he’s going to score every game because this is what we need at the moment,” Mikel Arteta reflected afterwards. “We need the points and in order to do that, we need to score many more goals and be more efficient when we have the chances. I think it’s going to make him really good.
“I don’t have to see it, I’m sure that it’s going to take a lot of pressure off him and it’s going to release him as well.”
Auba, looking more relieved than elated, appeared more concerned about the collective rather than focus on himself post-match.
“Tonight is not about my goal or me, it’s about the team,” the 31-year-old forward said after the stalemate. “As I said, we need points so it doesn’t matter if I scored. For the moment, the most important thing to do is win games and get points.”
The captain and talisman had the highest xG on the night and was involved in two Shot-Creating Actions (joint second). Crucially, he helped to progress the ball in possession and was integral to the home side’s pressing on the night.
As for the returning Nicolas Pepe; while the first half showed what the Ivory Coast winger brings to the side, the performance after half time demonstrated another side to the wide attacker’s game.
In that opening 45, the ex-Lille superstar could have netted his first league goal since October but had one goal-bound effort blocked by Jannik Vestergaard and the second saved by Alex McCarthy.
The desire exhibited for that 28th-minute attempt to break his neck to match Aubameyang’s run and recognise the space to run into to meet the talisman’s cut-back (admittedly intended for Bukayo Saka) highlighted his motivation and intelligence respectively.
He was also involved in the move that saw Dani Ceballos apparently brought down 10 minutes later. Pepe’s gentle one-time touch had played in the Spaniard and, on another day, he may have had the rub of the green as that Jan Bednarek clip on the Real Madrid loanee falls into the ‘seen them given’ category.
Gabriel’s exasperating second-half red card meant the hosts — for the second home game in a row — had the stuffing knocked out of them after bright starts following the interval, and the upshot of another sending off meant Arsenal had to retreat despite being on the front foot beforehand.
The remainder of Pepe’s game saw him more prominent in his own half and largely to good effect, with the principal error coming when he was caught ball-watching but Moussa Djenepo’s careless touch meant Southampton couldn’t capitalise.
The Ivorian made a stunning eight recoveries — only Rob Holding with nine had more — won eight of nine total duels on the night and drew a couple of fouls in the game. Furthermore, only Eddie Nketiah and Auba pressed the opponent in possession more times (16) than the returning 25-year-old (12).
It may not have been the most-accomplished showing for the Gunners, but baby steps need to be taken as the club looks to halt the tide of depressing results in what’s been their worst start to a top flight campaign since 1974.
Up next for Arteta’s troops are Everton away on Saturday, followed by Chelsea in the repeat of the FA Cup final on Boxing Day.
With the monkey now off Aubameyang’s back, who’s to say he won’t repeat last season’s heroics against the seemingly wobbling Blues in Arsenal’s next game at the Emirates?
After a troubled season, the North Londoners could do with some festive cheer and nobody will say they are not due a break after a torrent of poor performances and results.