An opportunity for two of the Premier League’s unlikely frontrunners to show how far they’ve come.
are third in the league. Do not refresh the page. Do not restart your machine. This is not a typo. Little old Southampton, who were playing their football in League One two years ago, are actually third in the Premier League – above Chelsea, Manchester United, Spurs and Manchester City. In fact they’re only three points off leaders Arsenal
, who they face this Saturday. With almost a third of the season played it’s time to start taking them seriously.
- Man Utd 1-0 Arsenal (Prem)
- Dortmund 0-1 Arsenal (CL)
- Arsenal 2- 0 Liverpool (Prem)
- Arsenal 0-2 Chelsea (LC)
- Palace 0-2 Arsenal (Prem)
- So'ton 4-1 Hull (Prem)
- Sunderland 2-1 So'ton (LC)
- Stoke 1-1 So'ton (Prem)
- So'ton 2-0 Fulham (Prem)
- Man Utd 1-1 So'ton (Prem)
Southampton’s manager Mauricio Pochettino has forged a team full of attacking verve and defensive steel. The Saints have conceded the fewest goals in the Premier League this season – just five in 11 games. And before you question the potency of the sides they’ve come up against, they beat Liverpool at Anfield and drew 1-1 with United at Old Trafford.
A balanced 4-2-3-1 system with the right personnel, assigned jobs best suited to their strengths, has been at the heart of their success. Morgan Schneiderlin and Victor Wanyama protect the back four, with the lively trio of Jay Rodriguez, Adam Lallana and James Ward-Prowse free to support lone front-man Rickie Lambert. It’s an attacking force full of speed, power and experience.
This quartet will have to be at full throttle if they’re going to improve Southampton’s wretched record against the Gunners. Since the inception of the Premier League the Saints have beaten them just four times in 28 attempts – losing 16 times. More worryingly for the travelling fans, they haven’t beaten Arsenal away for 26 years. Their last win came at Highbury in 1987 – 19 games ago.
But Arsenal will be in no mood for generosity. After losing 1-0 at Old Trafford in their last outing they will be determined to get their title challenge back on track.
Predictable knee-jerk reactions greeted the defeat at the home of the champions, despite the fact Arsenal had just beaten second-placed Liverpool and then Dortmund on their own turf.
It’s also worth pointing out Per Mertesacker and Tomas Rosicky both missed the game after being struck down with illness. Mikel Arteta, who started the match, and Serge Gnabry who replaced him, were also afflicted.
With all of Arsenal’s rivals facing tricky fixtures this weekend – Liverpool are at Everton for the Merseyside derby, Chelsea visit London rivals West Ham, Manchester City and Tottenham face off at the Etihad and United travel to Cardiff – this could be a perfect opportunity for the Gunners to extend their lead at the top.
After scoring the winner for Germany against England at Wembley, Mertesacker is expected to return to the heart of Arsenal's defence. Theo Walcott is also fit again
after recovering from an abdominal problem.
Pochettino has a fully-fit squad to pick from, bar long-term casualty Guly do Prado.
Player to watch: Mikel Arteta (Arsenal)
Every week he makes Arsenal tick, yet every week he stands in the shadows of his more celebrated team-mates. The Spaniard helps shield the defence from opposition assaults, launches attacks from his holding role and supports the creative sparks when they find themselves running down a dead end.
Captaining Arsenal against Borussia Dortmund in the Westfalenstadion, he was charged with standing guard in front of the back four as the Germans pressed for a goal. He walked a disciplinary tightrope at times, but his contribution to the Gunners’ 1-0 win was telling. He made 12 ball recoveries – more than other player on the night – and four interceptions, the second best record in the game. He didn’t let his 5ft 7in frame get in the way of winning his aerial battles either, coming out on top in four of his six challenges.
When he had the ball he didn’t waste it. Arteta was the most efficient distributor, completing 58 of 61 passes.
After their loss to United and the international break, Arsenal will need to show mental strength and focus to come back fighting against a dynamic Southampton side. Arteta embodies these qualities. His influence in the dressing room and output on the pitch will be vital come 3pm on Saturday.
LAST FIVE MEETINGS
- So'ton 1-1 Arsenal (Prem, Jan 13)
- Arsenal 6-1 So'ton (Prem, Sep 12)
- So'ton 1-1 Arsenal (Prem, Feb 05)
- Arsenal 2-2 So'ton (Prem, Oct 04)
- Arsenal 2-0 So'ton (Prem, Feb 04)
Arsene Wenger would have preferred to play this game before the international break to flush out the feeling of defeat. Now he has to realign his players’ focus after many of them represented their countries in friendlies or World Cup qualifiers.
With just six points separating the top eight teams, Wenger knows there’s no room for error as they head into a busy festive period.
He might not have mastered the English language, but Pochettino continues to master the English game. The memory of Nigel Adkins’ shock sacking in January has all but disappeared as the Argentine continues to defy the odds and guide his team up the table. A win or even a draw at the Emirates will further enhance his reputation, and Southampton’s European aspirations.
Facts and figures
Tips and trends
- Arsenal have scored first in each of their last 7 home matches, but have only kept 2 clean sheets.
- There have been fewer than 3 goals in six of Arsenal’s 7 previous home games against top-six sides. In only one of those games have Arsenal been trailing at the break.
- There have been fewer than 3 goals in Southampton's last 10 away matches, with the Saints keeping 5 clean sheets in those games.
- Southampton have lost 3 of their last 5 away matches against top-six teams, losing the first half in 3 of those games.
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