Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta dedicated his side’s Premier League win over Southampton to absent captain Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who missed the game for personal reasons.
The Gunners made light of their star striker’s absence as they continued their excellent run of league form by coming from behind to beat the Saints in an eventful game.
After Alexandre Lacazette missed a glorious chance to give the Gunners a first-minute lead, Stuart Armstrong put Southampton ahead from a wonderful delivery by captain James Ward-Prowse.
But the lead lasted just five minutes, as Nicolas Pepe equalised with a neat finish, before both sides created clear chances.
Former Saints defender Cedric Soares volleyed narrowly wide at one end while Bernd Leno produced a flying save to keep out a header by Che Adams at the other.
England winger Bukayo Saka put the Gunners ahead after going past keeper Alex McCarthy, who had come rushing out of his penalty area, before the 19-year-old picked out Lacazette to seal the points, the Frenchman appearing to send a message of support to Aubameyang in the process.
“I loved how they support each other and how they protect each other,” said Arteta, who was also without Aubameyang for the teams’ FA Cup meeting on Saturday. “Auba is having a difficult time and we are all behind him. This win was for him.”
When they were held 1-1 by Southampton at Emirates Stadium on 16 December, Arteta’s side were 15th in the table and trailed the Saints by 10 points.
This latest impressive win lifted them above Ralph Hasenhuttl’s side and up into eighth spot, five points off a top-four position. Not that Arteta is looking.
“I don’t want to look at the table,” said the Spaniard. “I want to look at ourselves, how we can get better, the reason we are playing better and winning football matches.”
Arteta’s team are finally producing results, with a fifth win in six league games easing the pain of Saturday’s FA Cup exit, while building further momentum before Saturday’s intriguing home game with high-flying Manchester United.
Saka once again showed why he is being touted for a big future with an energetic performance, which he capped with a fine finish, while Granit Xhaka and Lacazette also created goals.
Arsenal, who are close to signing attacking midfielder Martin Odegaard from Real Madrid on loan, are still a long way from where Arteta wants them to be.
But there are clear signs the Gunners are heading in the right direction after taking 16 points from the past 18 on offer.
Only Manchester City have won more points (18) and conceded fewer goals (one) than Arsenal in the Premier League since 26 December.
Arteta’s players left the pitch wearing big smiles – a far cry from earlier in the season when they struggled to put a run of wins together.
Southampton reach the halfway stage of their season with a healthy 29 points in the bank, but it is now one win in seven top-flight games for Hasenhuttl’s side.
There is much to admire about the way they have gone about their business but this was an off-day as the Saints slipped to 11th in the table.
It might have been a different outcome but for Leno, with the Arsenal keeper making excellent saves to keep out Adams and, late in the game, a Ward-Prowse free-kick.
Armstrong’s goal had given them the perfect start but Arsenal found plenty of space down the left hand side as they picked off the hosts.
The Saints went into the game on the back of five clean sheets in six league and cup games but struggled at the back against Arsenal without the presence of the suspended Ryan Bertrand and the injured Kyle Walker-Peters.
“The quality wasn’t good enough to be competitive against this team,” said Hasenhuttl.
“We still have 29 points, that is a good thing. We know that we are a good team if everything is perfect and we are in a good shape.”
There will be no panic at St Mary’s – and rightly so. But Hasenhuttl will be desperate his side return to winning ways sooner rather than later.