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.
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?
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.