This was a reality check for any title pretensions Arsenal hold, although any stewing will still be done from the top of the pile. They had taken an 11th-minute lead through Granit Xhaka and a weakened Southampton side, unable to get near their visitors, looked ripe for a thrashing. Instead they failed to turn the screw and, in a development that may give the embattled Ralph Hasenhüttl’s tenure fresh life, were pegged back by a beautifully worked equaliser from Stuart Armstrong.
By the end Saints, looking a vastly more confident unit than the crestfallen group that had earlier chased shadows, could feel they were worth a point; Arsenal, fortunate to scrape through at Leeds a week previously, were unable to generate a late slice of luck this time.
Anyone wondering where they had seen an identikit of Xhaka’s rasping finish only had to look back three days. He had seen off PSV Eindhoven with a relatively rare goal, scored first-time via his even lesser-spotted right foot, and the similarity was uncanny. There was a sliver of fortune for Arsenal when Ben White played a give-and-go with Bukayo Saka and saw his teammate’s backheel flick off Romain Perraud into his path; everything else was immaculately worked, White clipping back for an untracked Xhaka to blast unstoppably above Gavin Bazunu with his supposedly weaker limb.
Even at such an early point, the goal had been well advertised. Xhaka had already drawn a sharp save from Bazunu with an angled shot after Mohammed Salisu had tackled Gabriel Jesus; then the Swiss, who has taken to more of a playmaking role with gusto, slipped across for Martin Ødegaard to roll a low shot wide from 20 yards.
At this point Southampton were not in the game. New injuries had added to Hasenhüttl’s headaches, Kyle Walker-Peters damaging a hamstring in the midweek win over Bournemouth and Che Adams, the scorer that night, only deemed fit for the bench. Ainsley Maitland-Niles, on loan from Arsenal, was ineligible and with three other first-teamers out the hosts were plainly stretched.
It was to their credit that, at the interval, they retained a genuine interest in the outcome. A rout had looked perfectly plausible after Arsenal went ahead but only a Jesus shot, which found the side netting after he had twisted and turned, threatened a quick doubling of the agony. A belated display of initiative brought a series of corners after the half-hour and, while those were all dealt with, Arsenal no longer had the luxury of virtually unchallenged possession.
Granit Xhaka opens the scoring for Arsenal at St Mary’s. Photograph: David Cliff/AP
A burst infield from Martinelli was more reminiscent of the earlier exchanges and might have yielded an outstanding solo goal had Duje Caleta-Car not deflected his effort off target. But Southampton had at least partly got to grips with Arsenal’s wide threat. A little earlier they had brief cause for concern when Caleta-Car appeared to fell Saka just outside the area, but the England forward was harshly booked for diving.
Bazunu was worked again with the half’s final action, parrying Jesus’ volley after an outrageous scooped pass from Ødegaard, and Arsenal still had a job to complete even if they had not been especially extended.
Southampton re-emerged energetically but, given a chance to run at a backpedalling Gabriel Magalhães after intercepting Takehiro Tomiyasu’s pass, Adam Armstrong seemed to lose confidence and saw the chance disappear. Arsenal had not begun as quickly this time around although Jesus, who had wanted a first-half penalty after a grappling match with Caleta-Car, was indignant after feeling a surge towards the box had been illegally halted by the same opponent.
A brief stoppage for an injury to Gabriel saw Arteta call the rest of his outfield players into a meeting by the touchline. There was a sense only inattention could cost them but the afternoon had certainly become less comfortable. Almost immediately Mohamed Elyounoussi was fractionally too late to a Stuart Armstrong cross while the hitherto underworked Aaron Ramsdale saw a clearance change down by Joe Aribo.
Jesus, a perpetual menace in behind, then had another chance to settle things but was frustrated by an excellent covering block from Elyounoussi. Arsenal had made life hard for themselves by failing to finish the job and, from nowhere, were punished by the best move of the match.
A smart dummy from Aribo allowed Perraud, the left-back, to carry the ball diagonally inside Arsenal’s half and switch it right to Elyounoussi. What followed was a study in composure, Elyounoissi slipping a reverse pass to Gabriel’s left and into the path of Armstrong, whose finish across Ramsdale was clinical. It was Southampton’s first real chance.
Now the atmosphere in St Mary’s, verging on flat and resigned for much of the game, was supercharged. Perraud volleyed wide and then, after a spell of pressure, Aribo shot at Ramsdale through a crowd of players. It was now Arsenal who looked skittish; Mikel Arteta sought a remedy through the introductions of Eddie Nketiah and Kieran Tierney.
Nketiah dragged wide and Tierney thought he had teed up a winner for Ødegaard, only for the ball to have run out of play. It would be as close as they came late on.