LONDON – Unai Emery praised Arsenal’s intensity after they leap-frogged Manchester United to move into the Premier League’s top four with a 2-0 win over Southampton on Sunday.
Emery’s much-changed team were on cruise control at the Emirates Stadium thanks to early goals by Alexandre Lacazette and Henrikh Mkhitaryan.
And now the Arsenal manager hopes his players can maintain that intensity as a congested fixture list forces him into further squad rotation.
Emery made five changes to the starting line-up that beat Bate Borisov 3-0 in the Europa League on Thursday and he expects to make more for Wednesday’s home league game against Bournemouth.
“This is the moment we can use fresh players with energy and quality,” he said.
“We need to mix to save players because we are going to play a lot of matches.
“It’s important to give good performances like today’s even when we have to change some players in the first eleven.
“On Thursday I was very proud of them in a dangerous match and today we decided to make some changes and it is very important that we carried on our intensity and our performance with different players.”
There was some risk in that approach. Although in the bottom three, Southampton had lost only one of their previous six league matches.
They had also been the team that ended Arsenal’s 22-game unbeaten run with a 3-2 victory at St Mary’s in December -– which Emery admitted had provided extra motivation for his men.
But while Saints were lively going forward, some of their defenders looked as if they were still on the beach in Tenerife, where they had spent a week of warm-weather training.
The sixth minute summed them up. Jan Bednarek’s pass sent Nathan Redmond through on goal and he cut inside Shkodran Mustafi only to see his left-foot shot blocked by Arsenal goalkeeper Bernd Leno.
— Bernd Leno (@Bernd_Leno) February 24, 2019
The ball was played to the other end, where the unmarked Mkhitaryan volleyed Alex Iwobi’s cross back into the centre.
It hit an offside-looking Lacazette and bounced past Southampton goalkeeper Angus Gunn.
“They have fast attacking players like Redmond and in their first action they found space behind our defenders, but you need your goalkeeper sometimes and Leno played well today and helped us a lot,” Emery said.
Leno also had to deal with a fierce cross-shot from Matt Targett before Arsenal doubled their lead in the 17th minute thanks to a gift from the visitors’ defence.
Jack Stephens played a difficult backpass to Gunn, whose clearance fell to Iwobi 30 yards out.
Mkhitaryan drilled Iwobi’s cross first-time between Gunn and his near post.
Lacazette went on to miss four chances to add to the lead, which could prove costly with goal difference a possible factor in Champions League qualification and only two goals between Arsenal, Chelsea and United.
“We could have won by a bigger difference than two goals but if we keep playing with this intensity then goals will come,” Emery said.
“My problem is when we cannot create chances.”
Southampton changed to a more compact formation in the second half, but the Gunners continued to create and miss opportunities.
“We had the first big chance, a very big chance and from the counterattack we went 1-0 down,” Southampton manager Ralf Hasenhuttl said.
“That was the worst thing that could happen. The second goal was a horrible mistake in a zone where you can’t make mistakes.
“In the second half, we changed the shape and broke their rhythm. It could have been interesting if we had scored.”