Arsenal’s wavering quest for Champions League qualification suffered another setback after they slipped to an uninspiring 1-0 Premier League defeat at Southampton.
Tottenham’s surprise home defeat to Brighton in Saturday’s midday kick-off gave the Gunners the chance to level the score with their fourth-placed north London rivals.
But Mikel Arteta’s men squandered a major chance to capitalize at St Mary’s as Jan Bednarek’s half-time strike condemned them to a fourth defeat in five games.
Arsenal retain a game in hand against Spurs, albeit a tricky trip to Chelsea, while their latest error further emboldens fellow top four hopefuls Manchester United and West Ham.
The Gunners dominated possession for much of the afternoon in Hampshire, but in the absence of an ailing Alexandre Lacazette they often lacked an edge and rarely troubled resolute hosts Ralph Hasenhuttl.
The times they did, they were frustrated by in-form Saints keeper Fraser Forster, who made stunning saves to deny top scorers Bukayo Saka and Emile Smith Rowe either side of Bednarek’s decisive finish .
Victory for Saints ended a run of five league games without a win to boost their aspirations to finish in the first half.
Arsenal have been racing in the south coast sunshine after successive defeats to Crystal Palace and Brighton and without first-choice striker Lacazette due to Covid-19.
Still, manager Arteta’s mood would undoubtedly have been boosted by Tottenham suffering unexpected frustration against the Seagulls.
He gave Eddie Nketiah his first league start of the season in place of the injured Lacazette, while the hosts’ four changes after last weekend’s 6-0 thrashing by Chelsea included the recall of striker Armando Broja.
Visitors Arteta – led by Martin Odegaard – monopolized the ball for much of the opening period as they sought to escape their recent sticky patch. And they would have been ahead without the inspired Forster.
The Saints stopper was vigilant in denying Gabriel Martinelli’s curling effort early on before producing a stunning save to deny England team-mate Saka.
Brazilian Martinelli was again heavily involved, delivering an inviting low cross from the right after Nketiah grabbed sloppy play from Yan Valery, only for Saka’s unmarked effort to be deflected acrobatically.
Saints went down to five at the back after being humiliated by European champions Thomas Tuchel seven days ago and were looking for opportunities to counter.
They took the lead a minute before the break after a short period of pressure.
After Arsenal only partially cleared a corner from James Ward-Prowse, Romain Perraud recycled the ball and Mohamed Elyounoussi was alert to clear the ball from the left, allowing Polish defender Bednarek to register his fourth goal of the season in the roof of the net via Aaron Ramsdale’s fingertips.
The Gunners’ initial response to falling behind was hardly inspiring, prompting Arteta to turn to his bench.
Both Smith Rowe and Nicolas Pepe were introduced and the former almost caught a leveler in the 73rd minute.
A loose ball into the Saints penalty area bounced back nicely for the creative midfielder, but his effort scuffed into the ground gave Forster enough time to run through his goal and collect the ball.
Southampton were diving deeper and deeper in a bid to protect their slim lead, which led to some tense moments.
Saka hit a forehand over Forster and Odegaard and Granit Xhaka also scared off, but the Gunners couldn’t find a leveler as a loud response to the full-time whistle signaled further disruption to their European ambitions.