UNAI EMERY is now so committed to three at the back that even with five defenders missing this afternoon he still persisted with the formation which has stood Arsenal in such good stead recently.
Only trouble is that when you have so many players protecting your own penalty area, there is a danger that they all pass on responsibility for clearing the ball.
That is exactly what happened at St Mary’s this afternoon as the Gunners’ long unbeaten run was brought to a dramatic end by struggling Southampton.
The Gunners were all at sea from the moment Danny Ings headed Ralph Hasenhuittl’s team into a shock 20th minute lead.
Ings was the only Southampton player in the Arsenal box when Matt Targett got away from Hector Bellerin to deliver a delicious cross into the danger zone.
Yet he still found himself totally unchallenged before planting a firm header past Bernd Leno from close range.
Laurent Koscielny, making his first Premier League appearance since April, didn’t know whether to apply boot or head to Targett’s cross and in the end did neither.
And it was a similar story a minute before the break when Ings got the wrong side of the Arsenal skipper again to beat Leno with a looping header from Nathan Redmond’s cross.
Emery had been hoping that the return of Koscielny from a long-term Achilles injury would finally give his team the defensive authority which they have struggled to find during his eight-month absence.
But the veteran Frenchman was understandably rusty at the heart of the most makeshift of defences.
Latest Arsenal News
He was hardly helped by the absence of Shkodran Mustafi, Rob Holding, Sokratis Papastathopoulos, Sead Kolasinac and Konstantinos Mavropanos, who were all either injured or suspended.
And Arsenal were further hampered by the loss of Bellerin with a muscular problem suffered during the build-up to Southampton’s second goal.
Cue yet another tactical change by Emery, who sent on Alexandre Lacazette to accompany Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang up front for the second-half and effectively went for an old-fashioned 4-4-2.
And once again the Spaniard’s substitutions proved spot on, with Lacazette setting up Henrikh Mkhitaryan for his second equaliser of the afternoon with the help of a deflection off Jannik Vestergaard.
But Arsenal are simply incapable of shutting up shop these days and their luck finally ran out minute when Leno missed Shane Long’s 85th minute cross, blocked off Koscielny in the process and left Charlie Austin with an open goal.
Yet Emery could have no complaints about this first defeat in 23 games and knows his team can’t keep relying on late comebacks if they are going to remain top four contenders.
Time to get the chequebook out and sign a proper defensive leader before Champions League qualification gets away from them for the third successive season.