In the stand, Mesut Özil gazed on under a parasol. Somewhere in London, Matteo Guendouzi pondered the error of his ways. One win will not answer the questions, many of them regarding fundamental aspects of the club’s operation, that hang over Arsenal but this was a well-earned day in the sun against a below-par Southampton and means they remain on the tail of the European spots. It was not without a significant slice of fortune but, in the circumstances, the victory’s architects could hardly have been more timely.
Around 36 hours previously, the club had aroused furious discussion by awarding sizeable new deals to David Luiz, Cédric Soares and Pablo Marí. How they fit into Mikel Arteta’s long-term plans remains to be seen but it was no bad time to serve a reminder that, in a generation of outstanding academy products, Arsenal have a core to cherish. Two of them showed the coolest heads on a sweltering midsummer evening, Eddie Nketiah punishing an embarrassing mistake by Alex McCarthy before the substitute Joe Willock gobbled up a late rebound. The pair are dear friends and their reactions after seeing one another excel spoke of a simplicity and joy that would, in a perfect world, override the nagging concerns.
“I’m delighted for Joe, he’s like my brother,” Nketiah said of his teammate, who had replaced Nicolas Pépé midway through the second half. “If I score he celebrates like me, and if he scores it’s like I’ve scored again.”
Only one of the goals will go under Nketiah’s name and he will probably never score an easier one. But it was a testament to how he and his teammates had set out, forcing the pace in 30C heat and pressing intelligently. The first 20 minutes had raced by when McCarthy received a backpass from Jan Bednarek and assessed his options. There were plenty, but he appeared to settle upon a straight ball out to Pierre-Emile Højbjerg without reckoning on the speed with which Nketiah was closing in. His pass fell straight to the striker; Nketiah has an old-fashioned goalscoring instinct and quickly ran through to make sure.
How unfortunate it was for McCarthy, who is not prone to such mishaps and had brilliantly flicked out a hand to divert Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s shot on to the bar shortly before. Arsenal sought to expose Southampton’s high line throughout, Jack Stephens struggling for pace in particular with early balls through, and that chance was a sign they would have some joy. But in the end Ralph Hasenhüttl’s team might reflect that, while the superior side won, they shot themselves in the foot.
That was again the case in the buildup to Willock’s goal, which came at a time when Southampton would have fancied their chances of exposing Arsenal’s reliably soft centre. They had been getting closer to an equaliser but then, five minutes from the end, Højbjerg aimed a wayward pass that played Stephens into more serious trouble against Aubameyang. Stephens was unable to retrieve the situation, fouling his opponent and taking the inevitable red card. From the free-kick, McCarthy could not hold Alexandre Lacazette’s drive and Willock made no mistake.
Nketiah and Willock, 21 and 20 respectively, will surely enjoy more days like this. The identity of Arsenal’s third hero was a more curious case. Emiliano Martínez is Arsenal’s longest-serving player but this was the goalkeeper’s 27th appearance for them in 10 years, necessitated by Bernd Leno’s knee injury. He created one second-half chance for Aubameyang with a marvellous, flat 70-yard kick but his biggest contribution came as Southampton tried to build that late head of steam.
Stephens’ floated ball from defence had sent Shane Long away but Martínez, with a firm right hand, brilliantly denied him an equaliser from their clearest opening. He can expect the longest first-team run of his Arsenal career now and, with more performances like this, perhaps a belated shot at a far more regular place.
Martínez added to Arsenal’s stability with some commanding work on crosses. But it was in front of him that the difference between this and Saturday’s defeat at Brighton felt more profound. Granit Xhaka replaced Guendouzi, who was dropped here with Arteta cryptically referencing “squad management” in one breath and an “internal issue” in the next, and his composure was transmitted widely. Xhaka has given Arsenal managers plenty of in-tray material in the past; Guendouzi and the again-unused Özil will continue to occupy him but this was a night to appreciate the lights that still shine.