Southampton’s home ground has been less than kind to Arsenal: The Gunners have not won there in 13 years and have just two wins in eight visits to the Saints’ home since 2001.
You might think karma doesn’t look great for Saturday’s trip, either. After all, Southampton approaches this matchup on a real high, having beaten Liverpool away on Wednesday to advance to the EFL Cup Final at Wembley.
The Saints produced an impressive display of defending and counterattacking at Anfield, a game plan that could trouble Arsenal as well. They also carry confidence that they can overcome the Gunners from their 2-0 win in the previous round of the EFL Cup.
However, this match could unfold in quite a different fashion. First of all, the midweek win at Liverpool came at a cost. Already suffering from multiple injuries, Southampton lost starting midfielder James Ward-Prowse to a chest injury and center forward Jay Rodriguez to an ankle problem.
That could be a symptom of another problem, a cramped schedule that will see the Saints play nine matches in the month of January. Arsenal will have played two fewer.
And while Southampton loses players to the treatment table, Arsenal enjoys returns from injury absences. Forward Danny Welbeck has eased his way back to match fitness with three substitute appearances this month, fullback Hector Bellerin is ready again after a second injury layoff, and forward Theo Walcott returns after almost six weeks out.
As a result, Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger has options and depth that Southampton manager Claude Puel doesn’t share.
Where Wenger’s choices are more restricted, though, is in central midfield. Only two first-team central midfielders, Francis Coquelin and Aaron Ramsey, are available. With Granit Xhaka serving the first of a four-game suspension and Mohammed Elneny still at the Africa Cup of Nations for at least another week, Wenger will have to weigh the risks of sending out his last remaining charges in that area.
The risk appears heightened with two crucial Premier League encounters next week.
Mitigating that risk would mean tapping a young player for an important role. Wenger has identified Ainsley Maitland-Niles, Jeff Reine-Adelaide, and Alex Iwobi, the eldest of that trio at 20, as his backup options.
One does wonder where this leaves Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who has occasionally taken a more central role with some distinction. Perhaps more definitively as a wide attacking midfielder, where he’s enjoyed his most productive season since joining Arsenal from Southampton.
Will he get the nod there again over Welbeck, Lucas Perez, Iwobi, and Alexis Sanchez?
Whatever the selection in more forward areas, Arsenal’s players should have the quality to trouble the Southampton defense bereft of its early-season starting duo of José Fonte and Virgil Van Dijk. The former left the South Coast for West Ham, while the latter is one of the Saints’ many infirm.
The question, as ever with cup ties, is will the Arsenal team have enough cohesion and motivation to overcome a determined opponent on home turf. The Gunners did—just—in their third-round visit to Preston North End. The answer will need to be more definitive to modify their St. Mary’s mojo on Saturday.
Shane Long against Arsenal’s central defenders. The Irishman, who scored the tie-clincher in Southampton’s 1-0 win on Wednesday, is a pesky opponent. He’s a master of the sly nudge. Long’s misses in the two teams’ league encounter kept the door open for Arsenal’s late victory, and whoever Wenger selects in defense will need to keep Long out of those threatening positions.
Where to Worry
With a relatively untested partnership in central midfield, Arsenal might struggle to establish any kind of flow. That’s a bigger concern in this match because Southampton is adept at disrupting the opposition’s progress in midfield. If Arsenal don’t reach quick understandings in midfield and elsewhere—as we’ve seen other mix-and-match lineups suffer from—the attack could really sputter.
Another cagey, difficult affair could await. Southampton will try to compensate for fatigue and a depleted roster by keeping the Gunners at arm’s length. Arsenal will need to call on patience and persistence again.
Players to Watch
Arsenal. Danny Welbeck. The England man gets his first start since last May. He’s come close to scoring in two of his three substitute appearances this month and has the speed and power to get away from Southampton’s makeshift back line.
Southampton. Oriol Romeu. Southampton’s defensive midfielder was the standout performer in his team’s semifinal clincher at Anfield. He seemed to know where Liverpool was heading before Liverpool’s players did. Similarly adept interceptions and tackles on Saturday will frustrate Arsenal.