The FourFourTwo Preview: Southampton vs Arsenal
The 33-point heroes against the 33-point flops.
- So'ton 1-1 Chelsea (Prem)
- Palace 1-3 So'ton (Prem)
- So'ton 3-0 Everton (Prem)
- Sheff Utd 1-0 So'ton (LC)
- Burnley 1-0 So'ton (Prem)
- West Ham 1-2 Arsenal (Prem)
- Arsenal 2-1 QPR (Prem)
- Liverpool 2-2 Arsenal (Prem)
- Arsenal 4-1 Newcastle (Prem)
- Galatasaray 1-4 Arsenal (CL)
The hungover melancholy of New Year’s Day is inevitably a time for a lengthy, soul-searching personal stock-take (where did the year go? What happened to our hopes and dreams? How on earth did we spend £847 last night?).
Arsene Wenger may have resolutely binned his “trophy hoodoo” last year, but his Premier League campaign so far has had a Groundhog Day feel to it, with the usual gorgeous football blended uncomfortably with desperate capitulations; a consistent inconsistency that means nobody in their right mind would bet against them qualifying for the Champions League yet again, yet many still hold this up as underachievement.
Thirty-three points, way off title-winning pace, may constitute a disappointing return for Arsenal, but for Southampton – the most surprising surprise package since that scene in The Crying Game – it’s nothing short of a triumph.
Little was expected from the exodus-hit south coast men, but Ronald Koeman has unfussily presided over a superb 19-game run that's put Saints firmly in the Champions League hunt.
Getting a draw against Chelsea this Christmas once again proved a resilience that some believed might fall away against the really big sides.
With the usual European suspects of Tottenham, Liverpool and Everton all faltering, the continental door is definitely ajar, and Koeman can peek in wonder at the wealth-laded “top table”.
Form suggests a tight game. Arsenal have been average on the road this term, while Saints have excelled at home, conceding just seven, and boast the second-best defence in the league after Chelsea. The two sides have met twice in the past few months, with Saints dumping Arsenal out the League Cup in September, and Arsenal scraping a narrow 1-0 win at the Emirates in December.
That day, Graziano Pelle really should have put Saints ahead early on and Southampton also did what few teams can, matching Arsenal in terms of slick, possession-based midfield mastery. Bad luck eventually intervened: hit by a late injury having already made all of their substitutions, Arsenal’s pressing game eventually told, and Alexis Sanchez struck to give the home side a 1-0 win.
Koeman has stated that he enjoys facing Wenger sides – “it’s always nice to play against him, because the way he plays means that you will get space to play yourself” – and the last two clashes between these two sides at St Mary’s ended in a draw.
A stalemate is therefore our best guess – but if Wenger is to prove to his London loyalists that 2015 isn’t going to be exactly like 2014 but with more expensive Travelcards, these are the matches he must win. Happy New Year, no pressure.
Nathaniel Clyne, Jack Cork, Sam Gallagher and Jay Rodriguez will all miss out but should be pulling on the stripes again in January; Jake Hesketh’s knee injury remains Saints’ one long-term knock, while Morgan Schneiderlin is suspended after his red card against Chelsea. Southampton will at least be able to recall Ryan Bertrand, who was unavailable to face his 'parent club' on Sunday.
For Arsenal, perma-crock Abou Diaby and knee-knacked Serge Gnabry remain long-term wounded. Aaron Ramsey is likely to return to the squad but probably won’t start, while Yaya Sanogo is fit, although possibly only to go out on loan. Mikel Arteta and Mesut Ozil are also close to 100% again, while Jack Wilshere should return to bolster the ranks in February. Danny Welbeck is rated doubtful with a thigh problem.
Player to watch: Santi Cazorla (Arsenal)
£42 million man Mesut Ozil may be almost ready to return in the No.10 position for Arsenal, but the effervescent form of Spaniard Cazorla in that area during recent games means the German is no automatic pick for that starring role. It’s not just about the goals – although he’s got 4 in the last 5 matches: Cazorla's vision in the centre of a midfield missing Ozil, Ramsey and Wilshere has been outstanding.
Against West Ham, his two-footed ball-hogging abilities and passing accuracy (completing 34 from 41 attempts, 18 from 21 of which were in in the attacking third) helped bring a modicum of calm as the Hammers really applied the pressure, and he created 7 chances, made 10 ball recoveries as well as coolly slotting home a penalty.
Ozil’s return may mean that Cazorla is moved out wide later this month – there’s little doubt that he’s better at playing on the flank than the German – but this is another chance for Arsenal’s 2012/13 Player of the Year to showcase his abilities in the middle by unlocking Southampton’s stingy defence.
LAST FIVE MEETINGS
- Arsenal 1-0 Saints (PL, Dec 14)
- Arsenal 1-2 Saints (LC, Sep 14)
- Saints 2-2 Arsenal (PL, Jan 14)
- Arsenal 2-0 Saints (PL, Nov 13)
- Saints 1-1 Arsenal (PL, Jan 13)
For a while, Koeman was something of a nemesis for Wenger: it took the Arsenal gaffer six fixtures to beat various European sides put out by the Dutchman. The deadlock was eventually broken by a 4-1 defeat of AZ Alkmaar in November 2009. They’ve won one apiece of their 2014 clashes, with Saints knocking Arsenal out of the League Cup in September, and Arsene winning 1-0 at home in the league last month. There’s plenty of mutual respect too, with Ronald praising Arsene’s longevity, and “offensive, good football”, and the Frenchman saying: “Ronald has done very well, without making too much noise. You have to consider them contenders for the top four.”
Facts and figures
- There have been 5 red cards in just 6 Premier League meetings between Arsenal and Southampton at St Mary’s.
- Southampton have faced a league-low 174 shots at their goal, while Arsenal have conceded the next fewest (191).
- Arsenal have won 7 and lost just 1 of their 9 New Year’s Day fixtures in Premier League history. The 1 draw came at Southampton in 2013.
More FFT Stats Zone facts
4,312 passes made, and one goal each.
Back 1-1 at 11/2 with Bet365. Odds right at time of publication