Emirates Stadium, North London
November 23, 2013; 15:00 GMT
After this most recent international break, the English Premier League returns with Arsenal playing Southampton at the Emirates in what appears to be the best fixture of the weekend from a pure footballing perspective. Since the beginning of September, Arsenal and Southampton have the 1st and 2nd best points totals in the English Premier League. While Arsenal did beat Southampton 6-1 in this fixture last season and drew 1-1 at St. Mary’s, both matches were played when Nigel Adkins managed the Saints. Under Mauricio Pochettino, Southampton have transformed themselves into a real contender for the top 4, and play a style completely different to any other Premier League team Arsenal have faced or will face this season. At the same time, Arsenal have transformed into a Premier League title challenger, playing fluid attacking football while maintain a solid defensive record. They represent a level of quality that this Southampton side has yet to face this season.
The two sides come into this fixture after experiencing contrasting fortunes prior to the international break. Arsenal, due to a combination of fatigue and the flu, played arguably their worst match of the season against Manchester United at Old Trafford. Although they dominated the second half, their inability to create quality chances, combined with their not showing up for the first 45 minutes, led to them dropping all three points. Southampton, on the other hand, are coming off their most convincing score-line of the season, thrashing Hull City at St. Mary’s, 4-1. So it is possible that the international break gave Arsenal exactly what they needed (rest and health) while not providing much benefit for the Saints. What is more certain is that this match will serve as one of the more entertaining fixtures of the season so far.
Arsenal –Team News, Lineup and, Formation
While the flu helped to kill Arsenal’s chances to win at Old Trafford, it did allow some of their important players to avoid playing over the break, like Mesut Ozil, or to avoid playing two matches, like Per Mertesacker. According to ESPN.co.uk, Abou Diaby, Tomas Rosicky, Yaya Sanogo, and Lukas Podolski will remain unfit for this fixture. More depressing was the news of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s injury setback, which pushes back his return to January 2014 at the earliest. Mathieu Flamini will also miss this match after picking up his fifth yellow card of the season at Old Trafford. Finally, it seems Jack Wilshere picked up an injury due to a tackle by Sidney Sam in England’s match against Germany. His status for the match is unknown at this point. However, Gooners will be happy to hear that Theo Walcott has been cleared to play. While Arsenal have had success playing central midfielders in wide positions, Walcott’s pace and finishing adds a vertical threat that no other healthy Arsenal player can offer, with the possible exception of Serge Gnabry.
Given Flamini’s suspension, fitting Walcott back into the XI is a relatively simple task. Without Flamini, Arsene Wenger can place Aaron Ramsey as an all-action central midfield next to a deep sitting Mikel Arteta. The attacking trio behind Olivier Giroud will likely have Santi Cazorla on the left, Ozil, in the center, and Walcott on the right. Arsenal’s first choice defenders are all fit, so Gibbs-Koscielny-Mertesacker-Sagna will play at the back. Of the possible subs at Arsene Wenger’s disposal, outside of Nacho Monreal, Thomas Vermaelen, and/or Carl Jenkinson coming on to protect a lead, Serge Gnabry seems the most likely to come on. Depending on Walcott’s match fitness, Wenger may look to bring on a like-for-like replacement in Gnabry.
Arsenal’s goalkeeper, back four, and deep midfield players must remain alert and make quick and correct decisions, as no other side in the Premier League presses as high and as intensely as Southampton. Being lazy in possession or being loose with one’s passing is a quick way to gift Southampton an excellent opportunity to score a goal. Given how strong their defensive record has been, just one mistake at the back could cost Arsenal all three points.
Possible Starting Lineup [4-2-3-1]: Szczesny (GK), Sagna (RB), Mertesacker (RCB), Koscielny (LCB), Gibbs (LB), Arteta (CM), Ramsey (CM), Cazorla (LAM), Ozil (CAM), Walcott (RW), Giroud (CF)
Southampton –Team News, Lineup and, Formation
Unlike Arsenal, Southampton do not have multiple injury issues going into this match. The only possible issue is whether Rickie Lambert is fit to play after picking up an injury while on duty for England, though in all likelihood he should be fit. Given their intense playing style and the upcoming run of fixtures (@Arsenal (11/23), @Chelsea (12/1), Aston Villa (12/4), Manchester City (12/7), @Newcastle United (12/14), @Tottenham (12/22)), Southampton will need all their best players if they want to maintain their challenge for the Top 4.
If Rickie Lambert is slowed down by this injury, then Mauricio Ponchettino has a decision to make about how he wants to set up against Arsenal. Lambert represents the better offensive weapon when Southampton have the ball, while Pablo Osvaldo represents the better offensive weapon when Southampton do not have the ball, because he is better at pressing than a hurt Lambert. Given Arsenal are at home and will probably have more possession, Ponchettino would probably favor playing Osvaldo to put the Arsenal defense under more pressure, if Lambert is struggling with this glute injury.
Behind the striker, Southampton will probably continue playing Adam Lallana, Jay Rodriguez, and James Ward-Prowse. They will have a central midfield base pair of Morgan Schneiderlin and Victor Wanyama. The back-line will probably have Nathaniel Clyne and Luke Shaw at right and left back respectively. Jose Fonte will play at right center back and Dejan Lovren will play at left center back in front of goalkeeper Artur Boruc. With the amount of familiarity among the XI, Southampton’s pressing game should be in fine form with the front four pressing the back line and goalkeeper, with Southampton base pair midfielders pushing up to deny passing angles, and the back line pushing up to close down the space in front of them. Though this does leave them vulnerable to pace in behind, they could effectively disrupt Arsenal’s passing game and fashion quality scoring opportunities due to their pressing.
Possible Starting Lineup [4-2-3-1]: Boruc (GK), Clyne (RB), Fonte (RCB), Lovren (LCB), Shaw (LB), Schneiderlin (CM), Wanyama (CM), Lallana (LAM), Jay Rodriguez (CAM), James Ward-Prowse (RAM), Osvaldo (CF)
- Both teams have a player who Whoscored ratings put into their European XI (consisting of players in European leagues, not players of European ethnicity), Dejan Lovren (7.7) at CB and Aaron Ramsey (8.0) in central midfield.
- Southampton rank 9th among the teams in the top 5 European leagues when it comes to shots conceded per game, at 9.6, making them one of 11 teams to keep opponents under 10 (Whoscored.com).
- Southampton have yet to concede more than one goal in any Premier League match this season.
- Arsenal have three players who are tied atop the Premier League assists leaderboard with four assists (Mesut Ozil, Aaron Ramsey, and Olivier Giroud).
- Arsenal have not lost to Southampton at home since 1987.
Player To Watch Out For
Since coming back from injury, Santi Cazorla has yet to look his best for Arsenal. However, if there is a game where Arsenal need him to recapture his form from last season (particularly early last season), then it is this one. His ball control in tight spaces and intelligent passing are crucial for Arsenal to keep possession in the face of Southampton’s high press and to be able to play through it. If he offers that to Arsenal, then the likes of Mesut Ozil and Aaron Ramsey can stay higher up field, instead of having to drop deep, and, in doing so, isolate Olivier Giroud. While his tendency to come infield and deep when Arsenal are in possession is necessary, defensively, Santi Cazorla must stay alert and help Kieran Gibbs. James Ward Prowse is more than willing to take an infield position or stay wide to overload his side’s right flank in possession. While Kieran Gibbs has looked quite good defending Arsenal’s left on his own, this may be a match where Gibbs defending potential 2v1 situations is too much to ask.
Arsenal 1-1 Southampton
While Arsenal will be much more rested for this fixture, matches against Borussia Dortmund and Manchester United have shown Arsenal to struggle to consistently create chances through the course of the match, against sides that press with a high degree of intensity. And while Southampton may not have the creative players Arsenal do, their high pressing style may be the greatest creative force in the match. If Arsenal can consistently beat the Southampton pressure, or if Southampton is successful in forcing Arsenal to turn the ball over high up the pitch at a high rate, then it is more than likely someone will walk away with all three points. This is why you do not gamble on scores in football.
Blast From The Past