Friday, September 9, 2016

Match Preview, Arsenal v Southampton: New Boys Rewrite Old Tale

After an eventful international break, Arsenal host Southampton on Saturday. It will be the first home match since the ignominious, season-opening loss to Liverpool. That seems long ago.

The Emirates Stadium will see a substantially different squad this weekend. Not only are the team’s top players—Alexis, Mesut Özil, Laurent Koscielny—now ready for action, they will be joined by recent arrivals Shkodran Mustafi and Lucas Pérez.

As a result, manager Arsène Wenger has a deeper pool of talent and experience to plumb for his starting lineup. Wenger admitted as much in his pre-match press conference, saying “It’s the first time in a long time that I’ve had a team of what you can call men ready to compete.”

Southampton will, as always, test how ready these Gunners are.

Although three league matches aren’t enough to determine patterns of play and statistical trends, it does seem that new Saints manager Claude Puel is departing from the style of his predecessor Ronald Koeman. As Adrian Clarke explains in his “Chalkboard” segment on the Official Arsenal Weekly Podcast, Puel has installed a 4-4-2 formation with a midfield diamond of Oriol Romeu, Steven Davis, Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg, and Dusan Tadic.

This presents two opportunities to Arsenal. The Gunners can gain numerical superiority in the midfield and weave their way around their counterparts, using the skill and vision of Granit Xhaka, Santi Cazorla, and Özil to full effect. They can also exploit openings created when Southampton’s fullbacks advance to provide width to the attack. The runs of Alexis and Theo Walcott could be especially dangerous in this respect.

Whatever the path forward, the key will be finishing the chances the Gunners create. That was obviously the downfall in this fixture last season, when Arsenal took 22 shots, put 11 on target, and drew a blank. In two of three matches so far this season, scoring has not been a problem—while Southampton have failed to prevent their opponents from scoring each time out. Perhaps we can expect a different dynamic from this encounter.

Arsenal’s defense will most likely have a different look. Mustafi will probably take over from Rob Holding beside Koscielny, giving the Gunners an experienced, aggressive central defensive tandem. Mustafi’s decision-making will be tested right away by the wily and speedy Saints attackers Nathan Redmond and Shane Long.

In all, there should be plenty of new developments to hold the interest in this one. Let’s hope the conclusion differs from those of recent Arsenal-Southampton meetings, of which only one of the past six produced an Arsenal win.

Key Matchup

Granit Xhaka against Dusan Tadic. These two will determine which team dictates play. Tadic provides the creativity for Southampton, while Xhaka patrols the opposition’s creative zone and launches Arsenal. How each fulfills his respective offensive role while hindering his opponent will influence the course of the match.

Where to Worry

The biggest Arsenal concern is integrating new arrivals and recent returnees. How well do Mustafi and Koscielny gel at the center of the defense? Is Olivier Giroud ready to lead the line again, and can he destabilize the powerful Southampton defenders José Fonte and Virgil Van Dijk? Or will the more mobile Pérez be introduced right away, and, if so, how will he cope with the Premier League’s physicality?

Match Verdict

A protracted tactical contest in the midfield swings Arsenal’s way thanks to the mobility, variety, and intelligence of the Gunners’ front line.

Players to Watch

Arsenal. Mesut Özil. This team is so much more threatening with the German playmaker in the lineup. He’s a genius at manipulating space and buying time to make the killer pass. He can also get himself into promising scoring positions, as he did in the most recent league match against Watford and in this fixture last season.

Southampton. Fraser Forster. The Saints’ #1 suffered an arm injury on England duty, but Puel says he should be ready for Saturday. Forster stood on his head in this fixture last season, and a similar performance would frustrate Arsenal and its fans.

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