With the game against West Ham postponed, this visit to Southampton is Arsenal’s first reverse fixture of the League campaign. That means both sets of players and technical staff know each other’s strengths and weaknesses on a first-hand basis. The Gunners had a great time at home in their 6-1 win. Will we see a repeat?
This is the last in the series of genuinely winnable League games that have come Arsenal’s way through a fortuitous mix of fixture scheduling and form of opponents. Three points in this game will take the win ratio to 50 percent – still on the lower side but it was 33.33 percent after 15 games! – and keep the Gunners in touch with the fourth spot. Those numbers and the League table also show that there just isn’t any room for slipping up.
The Saints are having a difficult season. The last couple of months have been much better than the preceding ones but they’re still in the relegation spots. It’s a touch odd considering the fact that they’re mid-table in terms of possession (9th), Pass Accuracy (14th), Shots per Game (13th), and Shots Conceded per Game (12th). They also make the most tackles and the second most interceptions and commit amongst the fewest fouls (4th best). Their 26 League goals puts them joint 11th on the goals scored chart.
Few would guess these stats belong to a team lying 18th in the table. But that’s the harsh reality that Adkins and his men have to deal with on a daily basis. Their basic problem is in their defence that has conceded 37 goals or the League’s joint worst record of 1.95 goal per game. It’s even worse when we consider the fact that they’re not actually conceding as many chances as fellow strugglers Reading and Aston Villa, for instance.
Southampton are competitive in most of their games, even the ones they’ve lost badly. But they inevitably have these catastrophic moments at the back where the opponents get an edge. Even in the reverse fixture, despite the 6-1 score, there was a 20-25 minute period when the Saints had good possession and had pinned Arsenal back. But they conceded far too many ‘soft’ goals.
In fairness, it must be said that Adkins and his staff have worked on this problem. In the last two months, Southampton have only conceded 11 goals in 10 games. If the League table were made for November and December, the Saints would be 12th and that would be a fairer reflection of their qualities on the pitch as can be perceived from the stats mentioned earlier. Furthermore, at home, Adkins’ side have only conceded 13 goals in 10 games over the first half of the season. As a result they’ve only lost 4 games at home, which gives them a 40 percent loss ratio. Oddly enough, that is also Arsenal’s win percentage away from home. After improving their defence, the Saints have only lost 1 of their last 5 home games, conceding just 3 goals and keeping two clean sheets (their only ones this season) in those games.
I think it’s safe to say Arsenal are going to have a fight on their hands. A big score from the Gunners in this game will provide a stronger case for their improved team dynamics and individual form than the one against Reading or Newcastle did.
In terms of the patterns of play, the Gunners will be up against another typically British side. Long balls to a strong centre forward to gain territory, clever runs in the channels, followed by crosses and shots from distance will be the norm. Southampton are particularly effective with crosses towards the back post. Against Stoke, two of their three goals came when crosses from wide areas found Lambert at the back post. Sagna and Gibbs will have to be alert to Lambert’s movement. They cannot afford to lose track of Southampton’s main man the way Gibbs lost Dembe Ba in the last game. The central defenders will also have to ensure Lambert doesn’t find space between them and the full-backs.
Arteta will once again have a vital role in front of the defence, particularly if Lambert continually succeeds in winning the first ball. Southampton went to Stoke when Arsenal were trouncing Newcastle and outdid the Potters at their own game, at least in the first half. I won’t be surprised if they try to repeat the success of that direct style.
That might be seen as a touch simplistic though. Adkins had some interesting players and can move them around to create slightly different kinds of threats. For instance, bringing Gaston Ramirez into the middle adds a different creative dimension to the side. He can also go with two strikers or with three in midfield depending on the kind of control Arsenal are able to exert in the central areas and the situation in the game.
The positive side for Arsenal is that they should get some spaces to play the way they like to. I’m not sure Southampton can battle in the middle for 90 minutes or consistently put pressure on Arsenal’s build-up from the back. At the back the Saints aren’t as structurally compact as some of the other teams that’ve frustrated the Gunners are. There will be pockets for the attackers to exploit but whether they can get into those and make use of them is a different matter. I think it will depend on the kind of confidence we see from the players, which is directly linked to defensive stability and the ability to handle the physical nature of the game. Southampton could get away with their defensive weaknesses if they successfully rattle the Gunners. Otherwise there are goals in this game for Walcott and Co. despite the hosts’ obvious improvements at the back.
Potentially, there are individual mistakes in the Southampton back five and this too could also be a source for opportunities. Their goalkeepers have been suspect all season, the full-backs can get isolated at times, and the central defenders could be caught for pace or concede costly fouls.
We’ll have to see how Arsene sets his team up. Sitting back and inviting pressure in the form of crosses into the box will not be a clever tactic. If the Gunners do drop off, they’ll have to put pressure on the ball in the wider areas. The wingers could have a major defensive role in that case.
Pushing up the pitch is a better option but long balls – if nothing else, then from goal-kicks – will definitely make it a vertical tussle. Regaining possession quickly is the best solution. Will Wilshere be able to support Arteta, or will he be caught higher up the pitch unaware of the threats posed by the opponents running past him? The midfield hasn’t been dominant in the last couple of games, Wenger needs better from his best players as tougher challenges are just around the corner.
I’ll be surprised if there are many changes to the starting eleven. My personal preference is for Theo to play on the right with either Giroud or Podolski in the middle but it’d be understandable if Wenger continued the Walcott experiment forward as it has coincided with a run of form.
We might see,
Szczesny – Sagna, Koscielny, Vermaelen, Gibbs – Arteta, Cazorla, Wilshere – AOC, Walcott, Podolski.
Has Mertesacker recovered from his ‘illness’? Is it worth bringing Rosicky in for one of the regular starters? There are some changes that Wenger could make. We’ll know his choices when the starting line-up is announced I guess.
Arsenal’s next five League games after this one are against City (H), Chelsea (A), Liverpool (H), and Stoke (H) and Sunderland (A). I doubt if the most optimistic of fans will expect a win in all those. That makes this fixture all the more significant. At the moment Arsenal are 16 points behind United in 1st and 16 points in front of Southampton in 18th. The centre is congested and Wenger will want to avoid getting on that slippery slope. This is a tough game but undoubtedly easier than the ones coming up. Anything less than three points will be a major disappointment.
Oh, I almost forgot … Have a great 2013 Y’all!Follow @goonerdesi