Match Preview: Southampton v Arsenal; Don’t Believe the Hype

May 10, 2017

Occasionally, after particularly positive Arsenal results, I’ll break with pattern and review some immediate post-match analysis. I figure in so doing I can revel in the good feeling, which is one of the reasons I devote my time to following the club.

Such was my decision after the Gunners’ 2-0 win over Manchester United on Sunday. And I regretted it.

NBC Sports spent the first segment of its studio show talking about Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho. Nothing about who had performed well for Arsenal. Or about tactical adjustments that might have worked to Arsenal’s advantage. Nothing, even, about the Gunners’ ability to seize the moments that were presented them.

I then turned to The Guardian’s match report, hoping the hour or so of reflection had allowed its writer to reflect more substantively on the proceedings. Same story, essentially.

What’s this got to do with Arsenal’s match against Southampton on Wednesday?

It’s relevant because the obsession with the easy, popular narrative can make us miss some interesting developments. We’ll hear, for example, about the long odds of Arsenal’s qualification for the Champions League and about the club’s poor record at Southampton. Both accurate observations, but not at all interesting.

Instead, we could be thinking about Danny Welbeck. He scored another winner against his former club on Sunday, and his attributes were part of Arsenal’s solution to an opponent’s blocking intentions. (Watch Adrian Clarke’s excellent Breakdown of some of the other moves, such as the deliberate movements of Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Özil.)

Will Welbeck’s fitness permit another start so soon?

Or can the midfield partnership of Granit Xhaka and Aaron Ramsey continue to flourish? Again, fitness will play an essential role in the answer, what with Xhaka’s ongoing lower-leg woes. If the Swiss can go, that can only boost the team’s efforts to establish some flow through the midfield.

In defense, there’s a doubt about the availability of linchpin Laurent Koscielny, according to manager Arsène Wenger. Given his impressive contributions on Sunday and the wily play of Southampton striker Manolo Gabbiadini, Arsenal will be hoping the on-pitch captain can play. Without him, can Shkodran Mustafi come straight back from his own injury into a new system, and who’s going to marshal the defense from the central position in the back three?

These are all much more compelling questions to me than the unanswerable ones about the manager’s future, the team’s Champions League prospects, transfer needs, and history on the South Coast.

They’re drawn from the actual stuff of professional football—two groups of 11 elite athletes competing and, if we’re lucky, providing some surprises with their determination, physical gifts, and intelligence.

Like those two moments on Sunday when Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Özil skipped over ham-fisted attempts by Wayne Rooney to tackle them.

Key Matchup

Manolo Gabbiadini against Arsenal’s central defenders. There’s been a noticeable improvement in Arsenal’s defense since the introduction of the 3-4-2-1 structure. Gabbiadini, despite being in woeful goalscoring form, creates a tricky challenge, with the likes of Nathan Redmond and Dusan Tadic supporting him.

Where to Worry

If Xhaka can’t play due to injury, Arsenal’s transitions will suffer. That’s especially concerning against Southampton because the Saints midfield is very skilled at disrupting the opposition’s flow. Would the response be a double pivot of Ramsey and Oxlade-Chamberlain?

Match Verdict

I have no idea what to expect. Both teams had successful outings at the weekend. Arsenal still have something to play for but an abysmal road record of late. Southampton have little obvious motivation and problems scoring goals, but they enjoy the home support. Let’s just accept the uncertainty and see what happens.

Players to Watch

Arsenal. Danny Welbeck. The England man scored twice here in the FA Cup this year. He also delivered the coup de grace to his old team on Sunday. He can make his case to lead the line for the rest of the season and, perhaps, beyond.

Southampton. Oriol Romeu. Southampton’s defensive midfielder has put in some standout performances this season. He’s a formidable barrier to the Saints’ somewhat makeshift back line.

Injuries and Suspensions

Arsenal: Mertesacker (match fitness), Cazorla (Achilles), Debuchy (match fitness)

Southampton: McCarthy (hamstring), Targett (hamstring), Austin (shoulder), Van Dijk (foot)

Match Officials

Referee: Jonathan Moss (27M, 112Y, 3R)
Assistant referees: E Smart, S Bennett
Fourth official: M Jones

Broadcast Information

UK: Arsenal.com (audio only), 1945 GMT
US: NBC SN, NBC Sports App, Sling Blue, DirectTV Now, fubo Premier 2:45 PM EDT

YAMA Prediction

Southampton 0 – 1 Arsenal

The Manager’s Take (Courtesy Arsenal.com)

I believe he (Southampton manager Claude Puel) has done well because they have taken initiative in every single game. They have been doing well against the big teams in the league and overall they got to the League Cup final. Southampton had a very convincing performance on the day. Overall he has done well.

Match Facts (Courtesy FourFourTwo StatsZone)

  • Southampton are looking to win three consecutive home league matches against Arsenal for the first time since 1985.
  • Arsenal are winless in their five previous away visits to St Mary’s in the Premier League, last winning there in December 2003 (D3 L2).
  • Arsene Wenger has won only 25% of his Premier League games at St. Mary’s (two of eight) as opposed to 60% at the Dell (three of five).
  • However, the Gunners did beat Southampton 5-0 away in the fourth round of the FA Cup this season. Theo Walcott scored a hat-trick in that match, while Danny Welbeck got the other two.
  • Shane Long scored twice the last time Southampton hosted Arsenal in the Premier League, a 4-0 rout on Boxing Day 2015.
  • Arsene Wenger’s side have lost five of their last six away Premier League games – the same number they’d lost in their previous 27 on the road in the competition.
  • Southampton have failed to score in three of their last four home Premier League, the exception being a 3-1 win over Crystal Palace.
  • Southampton have managed just 10 shots on target across their last five Premier League games and recorded none against Liverpool in the 0-0 draw on Sunday.
  • Manolo Gabbiadini scored four goals in his first three Premier League appearances (248 mins), but since then he’s failed to score and attempted just one shot on target in 306 Premier League minutes (five apps).
  • Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain has provided seven assists for Arsenal in the Premier League, including two in his last match against Manchester United. This is the same total as his previous five seasons combined with Arsenal.

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