Back in December, Arsenal faced Southampton in the midst of a bleak midwinter. Mikel Arteta’s side were in a hole but with a 1-1 draw, they stopped a run of three straight defeats and ended a 797-minute wait for a Premier League goal from open play.
Arteta suggested it could mark the start of an upturn. Arsenal lost their next two games but perhaps the roots of their recent recovery can be traced to that night.
Any lasting impact of this Cup defeat should become obvious rather more quickly. On Tuesday night, the sides meet for the third time in less than six weeks.
On Saturday, Arsenal arrived at St Mary’s with momentum and five wins in six matches. Another victory would have symbolised how far they had come in that time. Instead they return pondering the cost of their manager’s gamble.
The FA Cup has been a useful shield — four triumphs in seven seasons have masked Arsenal’s wider decline. Arteta knows that as well as anyone.
He won the FA Cup twice as an Arsenal player, then kick-started life in the dugout with Wembley glory last season. This year it looked like their best chance of silverware once more.
All of which made his selection particularly peculiar. With one eye on Tuesday, Bukayo Saka and Alexandre Lacazette started on the bench. Kieran Tierney and Emile Smith Rowe — two driving forces behind their resurgence — were left out.
Southampton went full-strength and how it showed. Their pressing and energy suffocated an Arsenal side beset with rust. Nicolas Pepe, Willian and Eddie Nketiah struggled and by half-time Southampton arguably deserved more than Gabriel’s own goal.
Arsenal did improve with the introduction of Thomas Partey, Saka and Lacazette. Their attacking play had more zip and invention. They had chances to level, too.
Afterwards, Arteta defended his team selection but he knows he has given himself little wriggle room. Another defeat on Tuesday could prove rather more costly. Even victory would not solve issues bubbling beneath the surface.
Arteta accepted last week Arsenal must learn the lessons of their messy divorce from Mesut Ozil.
Never again, he said, should Arsenal find themselves paying big money to spare parts. On this evidence, they could be back there soon.
Willian, 32, is without a goal since his move from Chelsea. Against Southampton, he was virtually a spectator.
Pepe showed flashes of quality but that has been the story of his £72million move.
No wonder those two have slipped behind Saka and Smith Rowe. With Martin Odegaard set to join the club, could they follow Ozil and Sokratis into exile?
‘I want to think positively and think they’re going to reach their level very soon,’ Arteta said. ‘The way they train every day is to reach that level and we are here to support them again and not to think in a negative way.’
Another defeat on Tuesday and those feelings would become harder to ignore.