Arsenal finally secured their first post-coronavirus-hiatus victory on Thursday night after a rocky time since the Premier League got back under way.
A thumping by Manchester City was followed at the weekend by an upsetting trip to the south coast as they went down 2-1 to Brighton, leaving Mikel Arteta’s men’s tilt for the top four looking decidedly shaky.
But three much-needed points were picked up against a Southampton side who must already have one eye on next season, as they offered little resistance at St Mary’s and are safely in mid-table, away from the relegation battle.
Home goalkeeper Alex McCarthy gave the Gunners a helping hand to get things started.
McCarthy’s casual pass in the 20th minute allowed 21-year-old Arsenal striker Eddie Nketiah to intercept and walk the ball into an empty net and the keeper was culpable again late on as Joe Willock scored his first Premier League goal.
The defeats at City and Brighton had left Arsenal down in 11th place but their victory on the south coast lifted them to ninth with 43 points from 31 games.
Arsenal were well worth their half-time lead on the hottest day of the year with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang striking the crossbar shortly before Nketiah pounced on McCarthy’s error.
Southampton’s Nathan Redmond fired into the side netting and Shane Long’s powerful effort forced a fine save from Emiliano Martinez as the hosts rallied but they had Jack Stephens sent off in the 84th for bringing down Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.
Willock then made the points safe in the 87th as McCarthy failed to gather a fierce shot. Despite the defeat 14th-placed Saints look safe, 10 points above the relegation zone.
The much-needed triumph will be a welcome relief for Arteta as he looks to make a late bid for the top spots in the table. They are now six points behind Manchester United in fifth, the spot that may yet be good enough for Champions League football, depending on City’s ongoing appeal on their ban from Europe’s elite competition.
Elsewhere, Jay Rodriguez grabbed the winner as Burnley beat Watford 1-0 on Thursday to keep the pressure on the Hornets in the Premier League relegation battle.
Rodriguez met a pinpoint left-wing cross from Dwight McNeil with a perfectly angled glancing header to put the Clarets ahead in the 73rd minute.
Former Southampton striker Rodriguez had gone close to a first-half opener when he had a shot cleared off the line by Craig Dawson after Matej Vydra had struck the post.
Rodriguez had the ball in the net earlier, heading in an Ashley Westwood cross, but the effort was ruled out for offside.
The nearest Watford came was a second half effort from Troy Deeney which was cleared off the line by McNeil.
Watford are in 16th place, a point above the relegation zone, while 11th placed Burnley move to 42 points