London – After 15 minutes of tepid football, Arsène Wenger rose from the bench for the first time and went for a wander around his technical area, presumably just for a change of pace. A few seconds later, despite not having done much in the way of experimental arm waving or bellowing in a bid to raise his team’s level, he meandered back to his seat next to Steve Bould. Like everyone else inside St Mary’s, Wenger had clearly decided that there was not much worth saying yet.
The Arsenal manager’s many critics might respond to that by pointing out that they’ve heard it all before anyway, and of all the charges against Wenger, whose CV surely explains in great length how he revolutionised English football in the 1990s, perhaps the one that riles him most is that he is yesterday’s man. It depends who says it, of course. When it comes to dealing with the bedsheet artists in the stands, the seething YouTubers who rant into cameras after matches and the journalists who ask him about his future at every press conference, Wenger can smirk and speak in Professeurishly weary tones about how a culture of impatience has ruined polite society, allowing him to play the part of the wise old football sage seeking to enlighten the masses.
Before this stodgy but crucial victory over Southampton, however, the first rumblings of boardroom insurrection alarmed Wenger sufficiently for him to respond spikily when one of his interrogators asked about the possibility of hiring a director of football. After 13 years of increasing angst and inertia, a power struggle approaches and for a manager whose stubborn streak knows no bounds, the idea that there exists a person who might know better than him amounted to heresy. “I don’t know what director of football means,” Wenger said. “Is it somebody who stands in the road and directs play right and left?”
After his brief early stroll, Wenger stayed on the bench for the rest of the first half. Little of any note occurred for long spells, expectations that Arsenal would swiftly stamp their authority on proceedings after Sunday’s welcome victory over Manchester United proved misguided and Petr Cech was the busier goalkeeper before the teams disappeared down the tunnel, reacting sharply to prevent Manolo Gabbiadini and Nathan Redmond from giving Southampton the lead.
It required something special for Wenger to rise to his feet again. Enter Mesut Özil and Alexis Sánchez, the two stars of this Arsenal team. They had been peripheral until the hour mark, when Özil’s perceptive pass found Sánchez, whose splendid turn bewitched Maya Yoshida and Jack Stephens, leaving the Chilean to slip a low finish past the previously underworked Fraser Forster and maintain Arsenal’s hopes of squeezing Liverpool or Manchester City out of the top four.
Yet for all the restorative qualities of Arsenal’s first win on this ground since the Invincibles era, it will continue to trouble Wenger that he has an opponent among Arsenal’s directors. Ivan Gazidis is Wenger’s unlikely adversary, the would-be moderniser who sees compelling reasons for a drifting, irritable, anxious club to bring in a fresh voice, someone who can share some of the burden with the manager.
Wenger only scents a threat to his authority. Unlike Sir Alex Ferguson, the art of canny delegation is not one of his strengths. Ivan or me, Wenger seems to be saying to the board, and it would hardly be surprising if it transpires that the most influential figure in Arsenal’s history is capable of garnering enough support to win this battle. Gazidis will have to tread carefully. He is the likelier casualty.
Away from the looming Arsène-Ivan civil war, Arsenal’s focus was on reeling in City and Liverpool. Victory kept up their pursuit and it was impressive that they won without the injured Laurent Koscielny, their finest defender. The returning Shkodran Mustafi coped well, producing one vital challenge on Dusan Tadic.
While he remains resistant to sweeping change, Wenger was not afraid to use tactical shock therapy after last month’s humbling at Crystal Palace, tweaking his team into a 3-4-3 system. Arsenal have had moderate success in their new formation, winning four of their five past five league matches and reaching the FA Cup final with a gutsy fightback against City, and they passed another test here, recovering when the injured Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain had to be replaced by Héctor Bellerín before half-time.
Arsenal were not at their most convincing. It felt ominous when Özil ruined a promising break by knocking a straightforward pass to Danny Welbeck out for a throw at the start of the second half.
But they had enough punch in attack to deal with Southampton. Soon Özil was creating Sánchez’s opener; Olivier Giroud, on as a late substitute, headed in the second.
It is still out of their hands, but their game in hand on Liverpool bolsters Arsenal’s belief that Champions League qualification is achievable. The players have woken up and while the big questions have not gone away, Wenger will feel empowered as he steels himself for one of the most important fights of his career.
The Guardian Sport