Just when you think it is safe to talk up Arsenal. Arsène Wenger's team had arrived on the south coast buoyed by their best spell of the season, with four straight Premier League wins and goals aplenty, and it felt as though this was a fixture to press their top-four credentials. Relegation-threatened opponents such as Southampton need to be beaten.
Instead Arsenal laboured. The excuse of the demanding festive programme was watered down by the postponement of their Boxing Day fixture against West Ham and, in the end, it was easy to dwell on their erratic nature. Certainly Wenger offered the impression that he might tear his hair out as he reflected upon a performance without rhythm, purpose or penetration.
It has become impossible to predict what you will get from this group and they were second best to a Southampton team that created the better chances. Arsenal were indebted to their goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny, who made three decent stops.
The frustration for Arsenal was that Artur Boruc in the opposite goal had looked wobbly, yet they failed to work him. Only once, in the 70th minute, did they force him into a save but Theo Walcott's shot was directed straight at him. Arsenal put six past Southampton in September but further conviction here never looked likely.
Nigel Adkins could reflect with pride at the progress of his Southampton team since the mauling at the Emirates and he took heart from the discipline that his charges showed. The home crowd celebrated the point lustily upon the full-time whistle and even Wenger conceded they were value for it.
The game had started briskly but the early attacking intent from both teams quickly gave way to meandering fare. Santi Cazorla flickered for Arsenal but the opening exchanges were most notable for the anxiety of Boruc, who had been called in for his first start in more than two months.
Southampton have struggled for consistency in goal and the Pole flapped horribly at two crosses and sliced one attempted clearance before 10 minutes were on the clock; his kicking was consistently dicey. There were ironic cheers from the Southampton support when Boruc made a clean collection or connection.
There has been an edginess about the defending of both sides this season and the frailties were abundantly plain on the goals. There were accusing stares from those in Arsenal colours after the sequence of errors that prefaced Gaston Ramírez's third of his debut season at Southampton.
Lukas Podolski tried to play a square pass inside his defensive third and got it wrong, allowing Morgan Schneiderlin to seize upon the looseness and strike at Arsenal's exposed centre. He looked to play in Rickie Lambert but Bacary Sagna read the intention only to hit his attempted clearance at Jason Puncheon, who jabbed the ball back to Ramírez. His shot was low and true, and it flashed past Szczesny.
Southampton, though, felt their joy turn to a sinking feeling. They have routinely thrown away advantages this season and the equaliser they conceded here was cloaked in naivety and black comedy. Mikel Arteta muscled in front of Puncheon, felt the Southampton winger nibble at him and went down. If the free-kick concession was soft, then the goal truly hurt. Walcott's delivery was dangerous but Guly do Prado lost his bearings and composure and diverted the ball into his own net with an outstretched leg.
Southampton thought that they might have had a penalty in the seventh minute when Maya Yoshida felt Thomas Vermaelen aim a clumsy kick at him. Yoshida had been onside when the ball was looped towards him, despite Arsenal's high line but did not go down, which probably spared the referee, Lee Probert, from making a decision. Arsenal finished the first-half with an impassioned penalty appeal of their own, after Podolski's flick hit Jack Cork somewhere between the chest and upper arm but Probert was unmoved.
All eyes had been on Walcott, who kept his place as Arsenal's lead striker on his first return to Southampton, the club he left for north London in 2006. But it was not a match for him to remember, as he failed to impose himself. The other returning Saint, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, also struggled, as did Podolski.
The spotlight switched on the maverick Polish goalkeeper between the Arsenal posts in the second-half, as Southampton threatened. Do Prado forced Szczesny into a low save with a spin and shot from distance and, from the resulting corner, which Do Prado took, further slapstick defending almost saw Southampton retake the lead. The ball pinged off the knee of Sagna, who was under pressure from Lambert, and Szczesny had to change direction sharply and make a smart reaction save to prevent a second own goal.
Southampton appeared the more likely scorers in the second-half. Lambert slipped at the crucial moment after Szczesny's parry from Schneiderlin's cross; Puncheon found the side-netting and Ramírez had the ball in the net only to be pulled back for a push. Towards the end, Puncheon shot at Szczesny, whose handling was true.
Arsenal had little to shout about other than the substitute Gervinho's low shot that flashed wide and a header from another substitute, Olivier Giroud. The visitors' frustration was reflected at the death when Arteta put Kieran Gibbs through, only for the full-back to misdirect his low cross.
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