During manager Arsène Wenger’s tenure, his teams have displayed a tendency to surge in the final months of league campaigns. As Amy Lawrence explains in “Arsenal Could Be Blown All the Way to Glory by Trademark Second Wind,” Wenger’s title-winning sides went on long successful runs, sometimes overhauling league leaders, in the second halves of seasons.
Indeed, in the past 10 seasons, only twice have Arsenal have dropped spots in the table during a season’s second half--in 2013-14, when the Gunners fell from first to fourth, and in 2007-08, when they dropped from first to third. On three occasions, Arsenal maintained its league position, and five times the club moved up the table.
After 19 matches of the current season, having played each league opponent once, Arsenal were top of the league. A month later, they sit third, three points behind leaders Leicester City.
The midweek date with Southampton looks like the moment to commence the characteristic charge. A victory here would also follow Arsenal’s odd and arbitrary, on-again-off-again pattern of monthly results. The Gunners went unbeaten in the league in October, then won none of their three league matches in November. December brought four wins in five, followed by a January in which the only league victory (in four matches) came on the 2nd of the month against Newcastle.
It’s also a potential watershed match because Southampton have posed Arsenal difficulty in recent years. There’s of course the 4-0 loss at Saint Mary’s on Boxing Day, following other lackluster showings on the South Coast. At home, Arsenal haven’t exactly overwhelmed the Saints, either, needing a late Alexis strike to see off the visitors last season and an 86th-minute Olivier Giroud penalty to secure three points the season before.
Expect this to be another tight affair. After a shaky period, Southampton appear to have sorted out the defensive issues. The Saints have held Manchester United, West Bromwich Albion, and Watford scoreless in their last three league fixtures. Those performances—and the way they shut out Arsenal in December—will probably serve as the model for Tuesday’s game plan.
The difference this time out is that Southampton won’t be able to concentrate so much attention on Mesut Özil. In the previous fixture, Southampton’s Jordy Clasie man-marked Arsenal’s playmaker and creative hub, while defensive midfield partner Victor Wanyama controlled everything else.
The return of Alexis Sanchez, whose hamstring injury preventing him from playing in December, poses problems for Southampton’s approach. If the Saints focus too much on Özil, Alexis could find more room to drive at goal. He’ll also help Arsenal harry the opposition defenders, increasing the likelihood of turnovers that he and Özil can quickly turn into threats.
Arsenal executed a similar plan to perfection against Manchester United in early October. There’s evidence that Southampton’s defenders are just as susceptible to such aggressive pressing: Pressing sides Tottenham and Liverpool both overwhelmed the Saints on their home ground in December.
A resurgence of similar energy levels and renewed focus from Arsenal, fueled by the returns of Alexis and Francis Coquelin, would change the dynamic on Tuesday. More to the point, these improvements would bode well for Arsenal’s three other important league fixtures in February and for the 11 subsequent contests to close the season.
Jordy Clasie and Victor Wanyama against Mesut Özil. Without dwelling on the result, the Arsenal players and coaching staff will have studied Southampton’s approach in December and noted the focus on Özil. The German playmaker will have devised ways to free himself or to use Southampton’s attention to provide more space and time to his teammates.
That’s a less complicated task in a home match than it is on the road, and teams that come to the Emirates planning to man-mark any member of the Arsenal midfield usually regret it. Making Southampton pay for that choice, should they make it, will be important for Arsenal on Tuesday.
Where to Worry
Southampton are dangerous with crosses, headers, and set pieces. They’re the league’s most prolific crossers, with 436 in 23 matches, they have headed in 10 goals to lead the league, and their 10 goals from non-penalty set pieces rank second. Arsenal’s center back pairing of Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny will need to be attentive to this threat, and goalkeeper Petr Cech will need to continue his outstanding command of his penalty area.
Both these teams will put in maximum effort. Southampton have climbed to eighth position in the league and will try to advance further. Arsenal know the necessity of reasserting home dominance if their title challenge is to persist. A gritty battle in the midfield, decided by a moment of brilliance in the forward line, seems how this match is likely to unfold. In Alexis, Arsenal again have that difference maker in attack.
Players to Watch
Arsenal. Francis Coquelin. The Frenchman returned to action after a two-month layoff in Saturday’s FA Cup win over Burnley. He wasn’t in top form, as you’d expect, but his awareness and effort helped Arsenal largely control the midfield. Coquelin will be important in the same respect on Tuesday, and his lateral work should reduce Southampton’s threat from crosses. His relatively untried partnership with Aaron Ramsey in the center of the park will also be worth watching.
Southampton. Charlie Austin. The former Queens Park Rangers front man enjoyed a Southampton debut to remember last weekend, scoring the game-winning goal at Old Trafford as a substitute. If manager Ronald Koeman is reluctant to use regular starter Graziano Pellè after his three-week injury absence, Austin could lead the line; or he could come off the bench and pose a legitimate threat. After all, he scored both times Arsenal faced QPR last season.