Arsenal extended their unbeaten Premier League run in fine fashion against Southampton on Tuesday night, with a convincing win at St. Mary’s.
After falling behind to Stuart Armstrong’s early strike, the Gunners never looked back, levelling almost immediately through Nicolas Pepe before goals from Bukayo Saka and Alexandre Lacazette put the game to bed.
With captain Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang once again absent for personal reasons, Lacazette put in yet another accomplished performance up front. Read on below for our breakdown of why his upturn in form has been so important to Arsenal’s resurgence.
Prior to Christmas, Lacazette had only scored three times in 11 league games. Including his penalty in the 3-1 win at home to Chelsea on Boxing Day, he has netted five goals in six appearances. This has been, in no small part, thanks to a tactical tweak in the Frenchman’s positioning.
After Lacazette found success as a deep-lying forward throughout the course of the Europa League group stages, Mikel Arteta experimented with deploying him there domestically following the November international break. However, the added structure and solidity of Premier League defences meant Lacazette often struggled to get himself into dangerous shooting positions.
The introduction of Emile Smith-Rowe in attacking midfield was exactly what Arteta needed to do to get his side back amongst the goals. When Everton were 2-1 victors on 22 December, Arsenal hadn’t scored from open play in any of their last five away games in the league. Since then, they have managed eight goals in three away fixtures. Smith-Rowe’s ability to occupy the half spaces and draw out opposition defenders has allowed Lacazette to occupy more threatening areas around the six-yard box, thanks to starting in a more advanced role.
This was particularly evident in his finish against Southampton, where a perfectly weighted ball from Saka allowed Arsenal’s No.9 to poke the ball home with his left foot. When Lacazette is allowed to drift into those pockets of space between centre-backs, he is one of the most potent poachers in the league.
He also offers far more to Arsenal than tap-ins. Firing it in at the near post after killing the ball with his first touch has become somewhat of a trademark finish for Lacazette, as he demonstrated by scoring the winner at Brighton. For a striker, this is usually a sign of a good run of form. A clinical finish after closely controlling the ball takes some doing.
The centre-forward seems to have perfected this.
Lacazette’s return to form has resulted in Arteta’s men taking 16 points from the last 18 available and, after becoming the first Arsenal player to reach ten goals in all competitions, it is no coincidence.
Lacazette’s influence off the ball is just as integral to the way Arsenal play. When their pressing was muddled and disorientated in the autumn, Lacazette often led the line in attempting to win the ball back but failed to be supported by his team-mates. Against the Saints, he was ably and consistently backed up by the likes of Saka and Nicolas Pepe, who collectively hustled Southampton into making errors.
The absence of his striker partner and buddy Aubameyang will undoubtedly be a worry to Arsenal fans, just as the skipper seemed to be finding his own scoring boots again. The premature departures of Thomas Partey and Smith-Rowe were also a concern, as is the injury that forced Kieran Tierney out of action again.
A tricky upcoming fixture list sees Arsenal face both Manchester clubs, Wolves, Aston Villa, Leeds, and Leicester in the Premier League. This means the Gunners will have to be at their best to sustain this unbeaten run but, as long as Lacazette is fit and firing, they will fancy their chances against all of the above.
Zac CampbellFollow @ZPRCampbell