With some more results yesterday going our way (Liverpool loss to Norwich and Chelsea and United dropping points), the opportunity for Arsenal to go even further from the chasing pack – City aside – in the Champions League spaces, is clear and obvious today.
It’s a trip to a ground that has hardly been a happy stomping one for us in recent history, with Southampton winning it last season, as well as in the FA Cup in 2021 and a 3-2er in December 2018 too. So Saints fans will be in the pubs beforehand knowing that they’ve got a decent enough record at home against us and there’ll be a fair few who fancy their chances today, despite the fact that we are playing so well and have been the form team in the Premier League this season.
But whilst form will help with team confidence in the Arsenal ranks, it won’t put the ball in the net on its own, so we need to see a performance from those Arsenal players today. It’s going to be tough; they’ll be up for it and their fans will be raucous from the start, so we need to do what we’ve been doing all season and start quick and fast. Southampton may be bottom of the table from a home form perspective, but they’ll be up for getting one over on us and having seen Leeds do a number on us last weekend, they’ll fancy their chances today, because Hassenhuttl likes his sides to play an aggressive, front-footed style of football like Marsch’s Leeds do. Southampton are only behind Leeds and Bournemouth in the number of pressures they undertake in games this season, as well as having made as many tackles (bar one) as Leeds this season. The main difference between Leeds and Southampton, however, is where those tackles tend to happen. Leeds get at teams in the middle third of the pitch, whereas Southampton do it in their defensive third, so that tells me that we might see more action in their half today than anything else.
But whilst some of the stats suggest a similar game to the one at Elland Road last weekend, I think there are a few factors which may prove helpful for us. For one thing our players haven’t been travelling back to Norway on Friday, followed by a trip for four hours up to Yorkshire on the Sunday morning. The team will travel to the south coast and that will probably only be an hour and a half of travel. They will have been able to sleep soundly in their own beds on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday and whilst some might dismiss these perceived ‘marginal gains’ as having little impact, I think these sorts of things matter in elite sports. So I’m hoping to see an Arsenal team a little more front-footed than we were against Leeds, especially in that second half, where Leeds were able to dominate us and dig in.
I’m not sure Southampton will dominate us as much today. We might not win, they might pick up points from us, but I don’t see the game being the same as the one at Leeds. I think they will be compact, they’ll look to hit us on the counter, they’ll try to take advantage of set piece plays and they’ll want to hit us in transition, where we have been vulnerable at times this season and have conceded goals.
They’ve also played in midweek, whereas Leeds had a whole week to analyse what team they were up against, so I think that might be beneficial for us, because it levels the playing field a little bit in terms of preparation.
So the scene is set, but who gets the nod in the Arsenal team, from front to back? I suspect it’ll look something like this:
White – Saliba – Gabriel – Tierney
Ødegaard – Xhaka
Saka – Gabriel Jesus – Martinelli
The only question mark we have is with the full backs. Tomiyasu has been great and if he played instead of White or Tierney I wouldn’t be surprised and it wouldn’t be a downgrade. I do think KT should be starting at left back though; he’s more naturally suited there, I didn’t think it worked with Tomiyasu there as well as it did for Liverpool, who were a very specific threat, plus we need to get to the point where KT is tested with a couple of back-to-back games. Tomi came off for White on Thursday and so perhaps that is a sign he plays today, but I’d not be too keen on regularly seeing that if I’m completely honest.
Of course there is the question of Zinchenko potentially coming in, but having missed a fair chunk of football already this season, I’d be surprised if he made the starting XI and was thrown straight in. It feels as though he might be eased in and so I think the first time we seen him when he returns is from the bench.
We need to have our scoring boots on today. Southampton are averaging one goal a game and I suspect they might get one today, so we’ll need at least two in this match. In our last couple of matches we’ve had chances but haven’t put them away and against PSV we were particularly profligate. I just hope that we can get off to a fast start and get an early goal. If we do that it will force Southampton to come out at us and that might create spaces for the likes of Ødegaard and Xhaka to exploit.
I’d also like to see Gabby Jesus on the scoresheet today, because he’s been a little quiet of late. He’s still a nuisance, he’s still playing well enough, but getting him scoring would be nice this afternoon. The good news is that we’ve been getting goals from all over the pitch this season – as evidenced by Xhaka’s finish on Thursday night – so I’m hopeful that even if Jesus doesn’t bag a goal, we’ve got options elsewhere who can deliver.
It’s a tough game, we’ll no doubt go through some struggles, Southampton will cause us issues through the physical presence of Adams and the dribbling playmaker Aribo alongside him. I think they’ll try to counter us as we press high and our high press has to work against a relatively new back line in Southampton. They’re missing Walker-Peters so I’m looking at that right hand side – our left – as an option that we could get some joy with Martinelli having a run at the youngster Lyanco.
Let’s hope we do the business today because it’d be nice to finish off this weekend knowing we’re another three points closer to a Champions League spot and still four clear at the top of the league going in to next weekend’s home match against Forest.
Catch you all tomorrow for a debrief. Laters people.