Conventional wisdom had it that the league title would be decided at the Etihad next Wednesday but Arsenal may have effectively handed it to Manchester City five days ahead of schedule.
This was almost the greatest fightback their stadium has seen, better still than the overhauling of Bournemouth, but despite pulling level late on against a brave, shattered Southampton a draw was not really enough. Shocking defending early on helped Carlos Alcaraz and Theo Walcott, who both finished superbly, put Saints two up before Gabriel Martinelli appeared to begin restoring the natural order.
Duje Caleta-Car scored a smash-and-grab third after the break and, even though Martin Ødegaard curled in late on and Bukayo Saka dramatically equalised, Arsenal counted a heavy cost.
Arteta had been delighted with his side’s training ground response to the disappointment of losing successive two-goal leads, saying they had shown so much hunger he needed to hold them back. The stage was set for one of the rip-roaring starts to which Emirates regulars have been accustomed, but it was certainly not in the script for Southampton to deliver it.
In the event Arsenal were, against the odds, asked to show exactly the same mettle Liverpool and West Ham demonstrated in causing them such angst. Amid a sizable list of recent concessions by their back line, the opener was by some way the most gruesome. Aaron Ramsdale’s distribution usually falls the right side of the risk-versus-reward equation preached by Arteta but this time, with the ball at his feet and under little pressure, he flunked the test. An apparent attempt to pass short for Oleksandr Zinchenko was cut out easily by Alcaraz, who still had plenty to do but executed a slick curling finish from 20 yards. Only 26 seconds had passed since kick-off.
Now Southampton had something to grasp onto but they only had to repel a few minor alarms before making it two. Again a sloppiness once alien to this season’s Arsenal lay at the goal’s core, Ødegaard giving away possession sloppily near halfway. Saints had to be note-perfect from there, though, and the through ball from Alcaraz inside a lumbering Gabriel Magalhaes told Walcott exactly what to do. He responded by sidefooting crisply across Ramsdale.: the kind of strike he used to produce frequently in these parts. This was how relegation contenders return from the dead and how title dreams are put out to pasture.
Zinchenko immediately gathered Arsenal into a motivational huddle and appeared to heed his own words almost instantly when a low cross-shot fizzed across goal. Some kind of swift response was surely needed and, to audible relief, they found one in the 20th minute. Saka took a slide-rule Ødegaard pass to the right byline and, just keeping the ball in, clipped back for Martinelli to sweep in an impressive volley. Martinelli had been Arsenal’s only real bright spark until then and he had thrown their season a lifeline.
It did not cure their existing ills. Ramsdale soon saved awkwardly from Mohamed Elyounoussi’s far-post header and far more convincingly from Alcaraz’s vicious follow-up; they had again been exposed too easily and had to weather another spell of Saints pressure around the half-hour. Their visitors were hardly playing with the inhibition of a side that is fast running out of lives.
When Jan Bednarek, a rock at the back, collided with Martinelli and had to be substituted it was a blow to the visitors’ hopes of holding out. But they held firm until the interval, Alcaraz clearing off the line from Ben White, and Arteta had an almighty problem to solve.
The non-appearance of Alcaraz for the second period boosted his hopes of finding an answer. Saints were now fielding a back three, effectively turning into five out of possession, and the pattern was set. Lyanco, the big centre-back, had replaced Alcaraz and immediately headed a couple of crosses away. The home fans appealed for a penalty when Elyounoussi brushed Ødegaard and howled as Gavin Bazunu took his time over restarts.
Had Southampton, now short on attacking numbers and hardly masters at weathering a storm, shut up shop too soon? When Fabio Vieira chipped limply into Bazunu’s hands, subsequently being replaced by Leandro Trossard, it meant they had almost reached the hour mark intact. Arsenal needed to score twice for the win they needed and, with every passing minute, the air thickened with nervous tension.
That was before it tightened in sheer disbelief. In a rare Saints foray, Kyle Walker-Peters won a corner on the right and Arsenal needed to switch on. They failed to: James Ward-Prowse’s delivery was flicked on by Armel Bella-Kotchap and Caleta-Car, beating Zinchenko at the far post, headed in gleefully. Gabriel Jesus almost immediately missed a sitter and Arsenal required their greatest Houdini act yet.
It did not look like happening until Ødegaard took aim from 20 yards and gave a deflated crowd life for the final stages. Then Saka sidefooted in a rebound and now, with eight minutes added, they had time to raise the roof. Trossard snicked the crossbar and Reiss Nelson’s shot was deflected wide when a new chance for heroics appeared, but City are firmly in the box seat now.