Thank you very much, Southampton, for your work over the weekend. Drawing nil-nil at Liverpool a couple of hours before we were able to eke out victory vs Manchester United improves our slim chances of a Top-4 finish. A special shout-out should go to goalkeeper Fraser Forster for his save on this spot-kick by James Milner. Well done, Indeed.
Now we must hope that Forster and the Saints have had their fill of these sorts of heroics and ask that they welcome Arsenal to St. Mary’s Stadium on Wednesday night with slightly more generosity. While we remember fondly our last trip there–a 5-nil win over a much-rotated So’ton squad in the 3rd round of the FA Cup back in January–we must also know that Southampton is unlikely to present such an easy challenge this time.
The deep rotation for that game was due to Southampton’s congested schedule and their focus on getting to the League Cup final–which they managed to do, again at Liverpool’s expense. This one will surely see a much stronger squad and a fully determined effort as the Saint’s try to extract themselves from a large group in mid-table and get up for another strong league finish. They’re currently sit 10th in the table on 42 points, but, like Arsenal, they have two make-up games in hand, and, should they be able to secure enough points, an 8th place finish seems well within reach. Such a finish would cap a strong first year for Manager Claude Puel and suggest more to come next season.
Arsenal, of course, are even more focused on finishing their league campaign as best they can. The Gunners need to keep winning their matches while hoping either Liverpool or Manchester City stumble sufficiently to allow them into the Champions League places. A strong finish would also bode well for that extra game at Wembley, the FA Cup final against the presumptive league champions, Chelsea. Meanwhile, the futures of Manager Arsene Wenger and our two most expensive buys, Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil, will be determined over the summer. Surely the results of these remaining matches will go a long way towards creating an atmosphere that might tilt some of the big decisions at hand.
As always, we can only play them one at a time and this match appears plenty daunting. To begin with, Arsenal have not won a league match at St. Mary’s since 2003. In the reverse fixture back in September, we needed a penalty in stoppage time to take the full points. If anybody doubts what Southampton are capable of on their home turf, they need only remember the result of this same fixture last season–a 4-nil drubbing and a performance that was at least as one-sided as the scoreline.
So, how do Arsenal set up and try to take down the stubborn Saints? Will Wenger try to build upon Sunday’s 2-nil win over Manchester United by using the same three at the back formation and the same players who got that result or will the tight fixture list–five matches in these final two weeks of the season–force some rotation?
Keeping the formation, which has garnered four wins from five matches, seems a no-brainer. And, unfortunately, I believe the pressure on the manager allows few, if any, changes to the starting 11. Acting captain and defensive anchor Laurent Koscielny faces a late fitness test and Wenger expressed worries about his availability. The manager was much more upbeat about Granit Xhaka, however, despite the deep-lying midfielder having to be substituted in our two most recent matches. These two represent the spine of the new formation and are also responsible for much of the ball distribution when we try to play it out from the back, not to mention Xhaka’s fortunate goal that proved to be the winner vs United. Continuing on the winning run without them, I think, would be very difficult indeed. As such, and with fingers crossed that the pair are fit to play, here’s the starting group I think Wenger will choose, unchanged from the one that faced ManU.
Substitutes: Ospina, Gabriel, Bellerin, Coquelin, Iwobi, Walcott, Giroud
Once again, I don’t feel very confident putting these names out, especially as I only got 8 of 11 correct last time and thought Wenger would revert to the 4-2-3-1 formation he had used most of the season. In other words, your guess is as good as mine and the manager certainly has options. Beyond the fitness issues with Koscielny and Xhaka, Wenger might choose to freshen up at the front and save some of the starting attackers from Sunday’s win as bench options. What about players like Shkodran Mustafi, Per Mertesacker, Mathieu Debuchy, Mohamed Elneny and Lucas Perez, all of whom are in full training? Could one or more of them take up a bench seat or even jump into the first 11? Last time I opted for twist and I was wrong; this time I think the manager will stick.
No matter who gets to put on the full kit as one of the first 11 (or 18) they must give their all for the shirt. As our recent record indicates–at least for league matches–traveling to St. Mary’s is never easy. On Sunday we put to rest some hoodoos vs ManU with Wenger finally beating a Jose Mourinho team and ending the Red Devils lengthy undefeated streak. We need to do likewise at Southampton and take full points back to North London with a committed performance and a victory.
Go on then…