Arsenal have shrugged off the “cup team” tag for now, but not in the way they would have wanted. Their hopes of retaining the trophy are over after a first-half own goal by Gabriel won this tie for Southampton, who deserved to book a fifth-round trip to Wolves even if they were required to hold on as the minutes ticked down.
Mikel Arteta flung on the cavalry in an attempt to keep Arsenal’s interest alive but they could not muster an equaliser and, on this evidence, their hosts might fancy a deep run of their own over the coming months.
This fixture will be replicated in the league on Tuesday but, on Ralph Hasenhuttl’s part at least, there was little obvious intention to shadow-box. He had fielded a number of youngsters for the third round win over Shrewsbury four days previously but this time a much more recognisable lineup included Danny Ings, who had missed two games following a positive Covid-19 test.
Arteta’s seven changes were made mainly with squad conservation in mind, although Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang would have been involved if what the manager described as a “personal matter” had not intervened on the morning of the game.
Altogether it made for a watchable first half that fizzed with energy if not, for the most part, accuracy. The winning goal was a case in point and, for that matter, thoroughly deserved given that the home side’s appetite had been evident from the start. Mohamed Elneny found himself hunted down and then crowded out in Arsenal’s right-back position by a combination of Ibrahima Diallo and Stuart Armstrong; possession having been won, it was quickly shuttled across to Walker-Peters and the ex-Tottenham player set his sights. His cross-shot from the right corner of the box would not have gone in by itself, but it forced Gabriel into an intervention that saw the ball diverted under Bernd Leno with an outstretched toe. It was, perhaps remarkably given the struggles Arteta’s side have experienced this season, the first goal they had conceded in 508 minutes.
Gabriel had, along with the rest of Arsenal’s back four, already been given an unpleasant time by Southampton’s relentless hustle. They looked on as an ingenious, clipped corner by James Ward-Prowse struck the bar in the early stages, while in the 14th minute Gabriel may as well have been a bystander once again as Che Adams surged past him before demanding a firm one-handed stop from Leno.
Arsenal never looked comfortable against such a well-structured press but, despite finding themselves well on the back foot after going behind, resisted further punishment before the break. Their best openings had come before Gabriel’s aberration, at a time when the game was genuinely end-to-end. Gabriel Martinelli squandered the most glaring of them, completely miscuing when a deep Willian free-kick outfoxed the defence and found him alone in front of goal. Later in the half they did manage to pass their way through the onrushing blur of Saints bodies, but Nicolas Pépé’s eventual effort was blocked by Jan Bednarek.
Pépé was doing little to stake his claim for a return to Arteta’s regular lineup; nor was Willian, who was invited to emulate the absent Emile Smith Rowe’s influence but instead fell short. It must be a concern for Arteta that neither player is showing the improvement required. Martinelli was the forward replaced after 13 listless second-half minutes, though, with Elneny also departing. Bukayo Saka and Thomas Partey were tasked with lifting Arsenal and they proceeded to exert some pressure, missing a half-chance when Rob Holding prodded over.
Southampton were increasingly operating on the counter, one break seeing Arsenal’s defence turned around easily before Theo Walcott lifted Ings’ pass over the bar. Walcott would have regretted that if Eddie Nketiah, profiting after Pépé had found his range and slid him through with a perceptive pass, had not been thwarted by Forster’s left foot.
The keeper had stood firm and his back four were increasingly obliged to follow suit as Arsenal went for broke. Alexandre Lacazette came on for Hector Bellerín and now their forays began to ooze consistent menace, although the striker’s only look at goal came when he lashed off target at the death. When Pépé was given an opportunity to wrap his left-foot around an enticingly-placed free-kick on the right, he wafted wastefully high and it felt like a reversion to type. Arteta will hope that does not apply more widely to his team.