Boring, boring Arsenal. Well, not quite. Arsène Wenger has not suddenly transformed into George Graham. Yet title-winning sides tend to find a way even when they are not playing well and, although Arsenal were not at their fluent best against Southampton, they were four points clear at the top of the league at the final whistle. In a results business it does not always have to be pretty.

It rarely was against Southampton, whose energetic pressing game ensured that the influence of Mesut Özil and Santi Cazorla, who were replaced in the second half as Arsenal sought to protect a 1-0 lead, was minimal. "To stop us from playing it was the best we have seen," Wenger said of Mauricio Pochettino's side, who were ultimately undone by the calamitous errors by Artur Boruc and José Fonte that handed Olivier Giroud two goals.

Resilience is a quality that has not often been associated with Arsenal. For 20 minutes their triangular passing threatened to tie Southampton in knots and Jack Wilshere, who completed 90 minutes before taking issue with last week's reports that questioned his fitness, and Aaron Ramsey hit the same post with glorious efforts. However, after Giroud capitalised on Boruc's comedic Cruyff impression, more Jordi than Johan, the visitors pushed Arsenal physically and mentally. This was a stern examination of their character, especially after the disappointment of losing to Manchester United in their previous match.

Arsenal had to roll their sleeves up, yet although elbows were covered in grease by the end, there was never a sense that Southampton would equalise. The home side, working harder for each other than ever before, mostly kept them at arm's length, while a defence magnificently organised by Per Mertesacker never put a foot wrong. It was not winning ugly, it was winning with control; they were clinical and mature, just as they were when they won 1-0 at Borussia Dortmund.

"That is the most pleasing thing today," Wenger said. "Certainly not our technical qualities that I know about. Today we were tested by being challenged for every single ball and we responded quite well. We always had the focus and for 90 minutes I could never feel that we eased off a little bit. They made it very difficult for us.

"This win shows we are ready for a fight when it doesn't go as fluent as we wanted. That we can fight as well and on that front I'm very happy today."

Just as pleasing was Wilshere's performance. It has been a difficult start to the season for the 21-year-old, below his usual level after the problems with his ankle.

"The issue about my fitness doesn't concern me," Wilshere said. "I read in the paper this week that I'm injured. I played 30 minutes for England on Tuesday and trained all week. So I don't know where that's come from.

"People talk and say, 'Oh, he's not going to be fit', so it's down to me to prove them wrong, get on the pitch and show what I can do."

Next for Arsenal, for whom Theo Walcott made a 20-minute cameo after a two-month absence with an abdominal injury, is the visit of Marseille in the Champions League on Tuesday. Victory will move them closer to reaching the knock-out stages.

"It's a tough group, a strange one that we could go out with 12 points," Wilshere said. "But we got a great result in Dortmund so we should be confident going into this game. If we win on Tuesday, we know we can go to Napoli and get a result there. We've shown we get results in tough places."

For Southampton, who could have gone top if they had won, it felt as if they had beaten themselves, Boruc's misguided attempt to dribble round Giroud ending in predictable disaster and Fonte conceding a soft penalty with a pull on Mertesacker's shirt. Giroud, who produced another bustling, muscular display, converted for his 10th goal of the season.

"I like his play," Wenger said. "He has improved his link play with the other players, he is dangerous in every single game. Is he the best in his type of play? I like what he does."

Man of the match Per Mertesacker (Arsenal)