Arsenal have shrugged off the “cup team” tag for now, but not in the way they would have wanted. The holders will have to seek fulfilment elsewhere after a defeat that showed up the fragility of their reserves to an extent that should concern Mikel Arteta.
Southampton fully merited their win on the strength of a dominant first half and an effective late rearguard action; they will travel to Wolves in the fifth round and should feel confident of a strong run in this competition if they continue to treat it with the seriousness shown here.
While both teams sought to press from the front it was the home side that did so with genuine cohesion and understanding. Their hustle was a constant hindrance to Arsenal before the interval and it directly brought about the winning goal, which arrived in the 24th minute and ensured an unhappy start to Gabriel Magãlhaes’s game became significantly worse.
They wrested possession when Ibrahima Diallo, excellent throughout, and Stuart Armstrong hunted Mohamed Elneny down in Arsenal’s right-back position. The ball was quickly shuttled across to Kyle Walker-Peters and the ex-Tottenham player set his sights. His cross-shot from the right side of the area would not have gone in but Che Adams’s hurtling presence demanded intervention and it came in the unfortunate form of Gabriel’s outstretched toe, which diverted the ball under Bernd Leno.
“When you do it right you’ve always got chances of winning balls against any side,” Ralph Hasenhüttl said of his players’ voracious appetite to chase things down. “It’s a lot of work, a lot of knowledge and automatism from the players, and good to see they are getting better and better.”
Southampton could already have been ahead, James Ward-Prowse striking the crossbar with an audacious clipped corner before Adams barrelled past an uncomfortable Gabriel and drew a firm one-handed save from Leno.
Hasenhüttl’s decision to field the strongest side available, resisting any temptation to go with the youngsters who helped defeat Shrewsbury in the third round on Tuesday, came to look shrewd when set against Arteta’s preference to keep some of his better performers in reserve. “We want to come as far as possible and for me this is an important part of the season,” he said.
Danny Ings, back after missing two games following a positive Covid-19 test, had a volley blocked by Hector Bellerin and Arsenal might have felt fortunate to remain in contention at the break. They had missed a clear chance of their own, Gabriel Martinelli completely miscuing when found in front of goal by a deep Willian free-kick in the 16th minute, but increasingly found themselves unable to play through such aggressive pressure.
“We conceded a goal that we shouldn’t and when we created chances we didn’t hit the target,” Arteta said. He had left Kieran Tierney and Emile Smith Rowe at home, while Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang pulled out late on due to a personal matter.
While Arsenal stepped up the tempo after Bukayo Saka and Thomas Partey were introduced, going fully for broke with Alexandre Lacazette late on, they carved out only one real opportunity to equalise.
That arose when Nicolas Pepé played Eddie Nketiah through for a shot Fraser Forster deflected wide. Otherwise it was largely huff and puff: Smith Rowe’s standing was enhanced in absentia by Willian’s ineffectiveness at No 10 while Pepé, clearly short on confidence, seems to be regressing to an extent that casts doubts about his future.
“You could see how hard they are trying, sometimes with more or less quality, but the intention and willingness is there,” Arteta said.
That was fair, but the manager could be seen going through agonies when Pepé wafted a well-positioned free-kick over the bar late on when the cavalry had all come up.
Lacazette blasted wide at the death but Arsenal will need to improve by Tuesday, when this fixture is reprised in the Premier League. They aim to have signed the Real Madrid playmaker Martin Ødegaard on loan by then, although Arteta simply said he hoped to “get a few phone calls” to update him on potential deals.
The biggest preoccupation for Hasenhüttl will be to make sure the players who ran through brick walls this time can repeat the trick. “We’ve shown all season why we are so strong at home, so committed,” he said. “Hopefully we can do it again.”