Aiming for back-to-back wins, tactics writer Sam Tighe takes a closer look at the key areas for Southampton to exploit against Arsenal in the latest addition of Tactical Watch, in association with Utilita Energy...
This week Southampton take on an Arsenal side who likely can’t believe how their first week back in football has unfolded.
Their opening two games represent the footballing embodiment of the classic “best laid plans go awry” phrase - no matter how hard you work, how many details you figure out, things can and will go wrong anyway.
Positive COVID-19 tests forced three players into isolation the week of the Manchester City game, and in the first half of that game alone Pablo Marí and Granit Xhaka sustained injuries. David Luiz came on, gave away a goal and a penalty and was red carded. Then against Brighton & Hove Albion, goalkeeper Bernd Leno was stretchered off and Arsenal lost a game they’d dominated courtesy of a 94th-minute strike.
It doesn’t matter how much preparation you do, no team can survive a turn of events like that.
But with little room for compassion on Saints’ part, it’s their job to pile on the misery and make it three losses from three for the Gunners in June. Here are the three keys to doing so.
Punish uncertainty at the back
Southampton’s attack looked slick and co-ordinated against Norwich City on its return last Friday; Nathan Redmond and Danny Ings looked particularly sharp, while Stuart Armstrong was a driving force from deep.
The energy, precision and synchronicity Ralph Hasenhüttl wants and demands was there.
You can’t say the same about Arsenal’s defence, which has lost Marí to injury, Luiz to suspension, and has not had Sokratis Papastathopoulos or Calum Chambers to call on for a while. Cédric Soares is still yet to appear for the Gunners since joining from Saints, William Saliba can’t play yet and both midfield screeners, Xhaka and Lucas Torreira, are injured.
In order to cope with all of that, manager Mikel Arteta will have little choice but to field Shkodran Mustafi and Rob Holding at the heart of a defence that may well go unprotected by its midfield. Against Brighton & Hove Albion last weekend we saw that combination start well but fade badly.
Add in the fact stand-in ‘keeper Emiliano Martínez will don the gloves, and there’ll be plenty of uncertainty in that Arsenal defensive corps on Thursday.
Just like against Norwich City, who were without centre-back and captain Grant Hanley, Saints’ pro-activeness in defending from the front can force mistakes and bad decisions from an Arsenal XI that will lack familiarity.
While Arsenal have struggled for defensive solidity since returning, elements of their attack are at least looking a little like its old self.
It was ironic that the Gunners’ breakthrough against Brighton came via a curling Nicolas Pepe strike from the right flank, as it had been the left side making all the headway and creating all the chances up until that point.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang plays left wing but cuts inside regularly, arrowing towards the penalty box as a runner wraps around him on the outside. Typically that’s Bukayo Saka - either from left-back or central midfield - but Sead Kolašinac and Kieran Tierney are sharing the responsibility too.
When they add in a third runner off the ball to draw markers, Arsenal can overload defences on that side and free up Aubameyang for shots; the Gabonese had seven against Brighton and came close to scoring several times, plus he slid in Alexandre Lacazette for a great chance that was blocked.
It’s a dangerous pattern, designed to get Aubameyang face-to-face with the goal on his right foot, and it’s something Saints will have to work devilishly hard to stop.
A repeat of November
Last time these two teams met, Southampton produced a landmark performance in the context of their season, dominating the Gunners on their own turf (but conceding an agonising last-gasp equaliser) in a showing that was brimming with belief, energy and conviction.
Saints turned a corner that day.
One of the keys to success was the midfield’s aggression and coordination. The four who started - Redmond, Armstrong, James Ward-Prowse and Pierre Emile-Højbjerg - applied so much pressure, found so much space between the lines, they were the reason the game flowed in Southampton’s favour.
All four could well be picked again on Thursday, and Hasenhüttl likely has more than half a mind to, given the job they did at The Emirates in November and the form they showed against Norwich.
Contrast that to the fact we may well see none of Arsenal’s midfield starters that day - Mesut Özil, Torreira, Matteo Guendouzi - this time around (for various reasons), and it paints a picture of two teams at very different stages.
The litany of midfield absences Arteta is dealing with means three of Saka, Joe Willock, Dani Ceballos and Ainsley Maitland-Niles seem likely to be deployed, with Ceballos the “elder statesman” there at age 23.
That’s an inexperienced bunch, one whose performance levels are volatile, and could well see the grasp of the game slip when subjected to the sort of intensity Saints can bring.
Saints must repeat the domination job they did in November at The Emirates, knowing the midfield can create a platform for victory. With some added, more clinical finishing on top - and with Ings in red-hot form, that will materialise - they can go one better and take all three points.