For the second time in the last month, Artur Boruc gifted his opponent in a horrendous fashion, this time clownishly trying to dribble Giroud in front of the goal only to get dispossessed. It was an altogether surprising sequence that changed the game. From then on, it seemed like we were (a) content to sit back to absorb their pressure or (b) put on the back foot as Southampton sought an equalizer. By the time Per earned a spot-kick in the 86th minute, we had conceded the possession-battle to Southampton, 51-49%, the first time we haven’t owned that stat since September, away at Swansea.
It was looking at times as if this would end as one of those matches in which we’d get outworked if not outclassed and eventually find ourselves on the short end of some bad luck or a fine sequence. When Ramsey’s nifty little backheel hit the post, I thought to myself, this could just that kind of match, one in which we look bright but lack the finishing that would see us through. In the end, it’s not that we somehow rose above it, but, by contrast with seasons past, we found some luck (or were given it, depending on whom you ask) in the form of Boruc’s ill-advised foray, which included some Chaplin-esque backheels before Giroud poked it away and tucked it in. After I celebrated like a madman—and only after, mind you—I felt bad for Boruc. He vowed after the Sunderland match that he would make up the two points that he had cost his team, but that sequence arguably means he now owes five. While it’s true that the Saints dominated possession, they never really generated the kinds of chances that would allow them to equalize. When they did, by contrast with his Polish compatriot, Szczesny made a number of fine saves to earn another clean-sheet.
As for Szczesny, allow me to splits hairs for a moment: he’s not just blocking shots. He’s making saves. The hair I’m splitting here is that, to me, blocking shots is the relatively straight-forward task of catching a shot that has come more to less straight at the keeper. Making a save, however, is the far more difficult art of making a split-second decision, guessing or reacting just right to get fingers to, deflect, or otherwise stop a shot that, by all rights, should have gone in. On Saturday, Szczesny came up with a number of vital saves, perhaps none quite as vital as the one he came up with shortly after Giroud’s goal. After a spot-kick was awarded to Southampton about 40 yards out, Giroud headed clear, but only the top of the box. Arteta squibbed his clearance something awful, and Lallana volleyed almost perfectly. It was all Szczesny could do to palm it over. Moments later, he was at it again, going full-stretch to deflect a lively shot from Rodriguez. All afternoon, I drew a calm, confident feeling whenever I saw the Saints look to shoot. I’m not claiming that Szczesny has somehow crossed a threshold of some kind, never to regress, but he’s in rare form and has answered just about every question put to him, literally or figuratively.
Eight months ago, Arteta’s failed clearance would have led to a goal. Heck, eight months ago, it might have been our keeper getting dispossessed and conceding a silly goal. The run of form we’ve been on has changed more than just results or table-position; there’s belief now that we have the resilience, the resources, the ability, to manufacture wins. If it hadn’t been for Boruc’s gaffe, we might have found a way through anyway. Wilshere’s dink off the far post, Ramsey’s back-heel (again, off the post), Mesut’s shot (arms and legs pinwheeling in as frantic a display from him as I’ve seen yet), these and more showed that we had chances and would score before long. By the end of the match, we’d claimed that second goal as Giroud, certainly in Boruc’s head, sent him the wrong way and coolly sent home the the spot-kick. We now account for nearly one-third of the goals scored on Southampton this year (two of seven) and are the only team to have scored twice against them in a Prem match.
It’s the end of a rough match for Southampton, one in which they looked more impressive for long stretches, and to concede in such a fashion has to sting. I know I called for us to run rough-shod over them, but not out of any kind of ill will. I wish we could have scored a “goal of the season” kind of goal so that Boruc and the others could say, “well, not much you can do to stop that one going in” instead of pointing accusingly at each other (or themselves) and feel the way they must feel. Had Wilshere or Ramsey’s shots gone in, there’d at least be the comfort, cold though it may be, that it was a moment of brilliance did them in, not a silly mistake or two. However, I’ll stand by my own earlier assertions that Southampton has a solid platform for sustained, consistent success over the long run. Whereas others have looked posivitely shambolic (6-0, Spurs? Really?) or inconsistent at best (Man City, yes, I’m looking at you, too), the Saints look to me like they’ll continue to impress. But for a few crucial seconds on Saturday, that’s just what they did. I’m pulling for them. Except 28 January.
That’s when we travel there, of course. I won’t say we’ll still be top of the table, but we’re looking pretty damned good. With Walcott making his return (and testing Boruc with a laser-beam of a shot that was just wide), and Podolski and the Ox returning soon-ish as well, we might even dream of building on this fine form we’re in. Knock on wood. The only quibble I have, and it’s one I may have to return to later, is that Giroud did everything to prove Arsène’s suggestion that we don’t need to sign another striker. Two goals. Fine defensive work. Got up from a little knock instead of staying down just a bit longer. As I said, it’s a quibble. Let’s set it aside and enjoy being four points clear at the top of the table. Brilliant.