On Sunday, Southampton will continue their tough December march against a surging Arsenal side. After losing their opening two matches in the Premier League, Unai Emery’s Gunners have gone unbeaten across all competitions; their last defeat coming against Chelsea in August. A stark contrast to the Saints, who have managed only one league win to this point into the season.
The St. Mary’s faithful will hope that the squad can change their fortunes against the North London team given that newly appointed manager Ralph Hasenhuttl will have one full week of training under his belt as a Southampton manager. Nevertheless, this match will be no easy task. Helping to break down the Saints’ opposition is Carl Zee of the Gambling.com Group and a long-time Gunners fan.
Breaking Down the Gunners
Arsenal come into this match having scraped by Huddersfield in their previous fixture. Late heroics from Lucas Torreira secured all three points for the Gunners against a resilient display from David Wagner’s team.
“(Arsenal’s) game last week vs Huddersfield shouldn’t have come down to the wire” says Zee, “so making sure that Arsenal comes in with the right game plan will be important (for them)”. According to Zee, the Huddersfield result for Arsenal can be attributed to a trend experienced by the Gunners where manager Unai Emery has made precise second-half adjustments according to weaknesses he has observed in his opposition during the first period of play. This has allowed Arsenal to not only get back into games this season but even win them. That will be something for Hasenhuttl to anticipate if the teams are deadlocked at the half.
The game will be played on Sunday on account of Arsenal’s participation in the Europa League this season. Going into Thursday, the Gunners sit atop their group and are three points ahead of Sporting Lisbon. Zee believes Arsenal will play to win when they host Azerbaijani side Qarabag at the Emirates Stadium but this is not necessarily good news for Southampton fans.
“Arsenal will absolutely be playing to win, but they’ll likely be doing so with their reserve team,” says Zee, “Unfortunately for Southampton, it’s very likely that Arsenal will (play a predominant reserves side) against Qarabag again, and they’ll likely win pretty comfortably”. This more than likely means that a good portion of Arsenal’s key players such as Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette, the team’s prolific pair of attackers, will be fresh for the game against Saints
Gunners on target with Emery
Without a doubt, Arsenal has been an imposing force for the opposition this season in comparison to recent years. It has become increasingly harder to take points for the North London team nowadays and the obvious difference is with the new manager, Unai Emery. The Spaniard is only the second manager since 1996 to give instruction from the Gunners technical area so there was certainly speculation surrounding his arrival. Would he be able to live up to the long-term success of his predecessor?
“I was a vocal detractor of Unai when he was first announced, but the man knows his football and he’s turned me into a believer”, says Zee, who has followed Arsenal very closely over the past few years. “Arsenal is on an unreal streak, and they have Unai to thank for bringing some modern thinking to an extremely talented side”, says Zee.
“Arsenal is on an unreal streak, and they have Unai to thank for bringing some modern thinking to an extremely talented side”.
It is no secret that even within the Arsenal camp, there was speculation that Arsene Wenger may have been sleeping on talent within the squad on account of old-fashioned thinking. This may have allowed teams to take advantage of an unassuming Gunners team in years past. As a result, Premier League teams are now finding it harder to take points from Arsenal.
“They’re playing like a team, which is incredibly fun to watch”, says Zee, “there are few teams playing quite as entertaining team football as Arsenal (are) right now.
Going into this match, Zee is optimistic that Arsenal will be able to capitalize on a lack of identity in the Southampton squad.
“For the Saints, the last three matches have seen 3 different formations, and only one match saw a point (against the similarly identity-less Manchester United)” says Zee, “Arsenal, on the other hand, clearly (understand) how they want to go about things, and they don’t even need (Mesut) Ozil’s creativity.
However, there is the possibility of weakness in the Arsenal team from what Zee has observed in previous games, that Southampton could look to capitalize on.
“Where the Gunners might get into trouble is if they start toying with their identity, which is probably what caused the slight disconnect against Huddersfield” says Zee. According to Zee, this could be the reason Arsenal struggled to find the net until the 83rd minute despite dominating play.
Looking at this fixture, it is hard to argue that it is a must-win for Hasenhuttl and the Saints. With the form Arsenal have been in, there are few that would favour Southampton in this matchup. If the Saints can match Arsenal’s goal-scoring prowess with resistance and take opportunities to take the game to the Gunners half of the pitch, there is optimism to secure at least a point. A win, even if unlikely, is possible and would do much to the solidify the credibility surrounding the former RB Leipzig manager. Hasenhuttl is no stranger to winning against formidable opponents having secured multiple wins versus sides like Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund during his time in the German top flight. Perhaps a combination of some skillful tactics and luck will grant the Austrian a first Premier League victory. A Southampton win over Arsenal in any fashion would be a genuine statement of intent as the Saints enter the Hasenhuttl era.
When asked of Southampton’s recent appointment, Zee had relatively positives thoughts regarding his oppositions new manager,
“Southampton is infinitely better poised to claw their way back into a respectable position”, says Zee, “Frankly, Mark Hughes was a strange decision to lead the team, especially seeing how his reign of Stoke ended”.
Zee identifies that Hasenhuttl’s decision to voluntarily leave the team he led to both the Champions League and Europa League consecutively, is a major indicator in the contrasting qualities of the two managers. There is also the factor that Ralph Hasenhuttl has skillfully been able to prospect world-class talent in the teams he has managed; particularly at Leipzig.
“The names Timo Werner, Naby Keita, and Emil Forsberg weren’t exactly well known before Hasenhuttl took over Leipzig, but the world knows who they are now,” says Zee, It’ll take some time to get his feet under him, but Hasenhuttl should do some excellent work at Southampton.
“Southampton is infinitely better poised to claw their way back into a respectable position (with Hasenhuttl)”.
Nevertheless, there should not be any kind of unrealistic vision for Hasenhuttl this soon into his tenure where Southampton trump Arsenal in a way they did under Ronald Koeman. There is always the hope that Saints fans will be treated some individual quality from players like Stuart Armstrong or Pierre- Emile Hojbjerg as their recent play has suggested; maybe something in the fashion of Cuco Martina’s wonder strike. But again, there should not be any sort of expectation of a changed team, at least not yet. A week is still barely time for a new manager’s philosophy to be injected into every part of the squad. It is unfortunate to approach the match with this kind of apathy but it is only a consequence of the reality that Southampton find themselves in. Much like the match against Cardiff City last weekend in which Hasenhuttl had charge for a little over 48 hours, the Austrian should be relieved of any kind of unnecessary pressure. Especially when he is coming up against one of the Premier League’s top sides. In comparison, the subsequent matches against Huddersfield and West Ham will be much more crucial for the new manager.
This match certainly has all the makings of a defensive test, particularly with the individual quality in Arsenal’s attack. It will be critical for Hasenhuttl to pick a proper pairing of centrebacks to match the offensive efforts of the Gunners. According to Zee, the Gunners have been effective with a sole striker this season, so whether that is Aubameyang or Lacazette, the Saints defense will need to be ready to match their quality
Southampton’s young Frenchman Yan Valery has certainly proved impressive recent starts, so it is likely that he will make an appearance at right-back.
In terms of central defending, Hasenhuttl may opt for his more seasoned options such as Maya Yoshida or Jack Stephens. It may come across as unpopular, but Hasenhuttl may even want to stick with Jannik Vestergaard despite his crucial error last week that allowed Cardiff to grab the previous match’s only goal. A solid performance against a top side like Arsenal might get the tall Dane in a more confident state going forward. Not to mention Vestergaard has a height advantage of nearly 6 inches on Arsenal’s tallest member of its regular defence. That might prove to be motivation for Vestergaard to get after his first goal from a set-piece.
The wounds of the team’s struggle under Mark Hughes are still very fresh and the players will likely have to rehabilitate those aches under the guide of the man who has been compared to the Austrian Jurgen Klopp. Upon examining his managerial history, the Austrian has proven he can do a lot with very little and get the best out of the players under his guide; even if his players are not the most highly rated in the league they play in. There are already reports that surfaced that Hasenhuttl cancelled the team’s day off this past week to get them more focused. This is certainly positive in terms of getting the team on a proper track. There will come a time, hopefully in the near future, where Southampton will be playing a very different style of football than they were under Mark Hughes and Mauricio Pellegrino. In addition, Hasenhuttl appears to thrive in underdog environments; an environment that Southampton may be able to provide him. More than anything, the Austrian needs time and from the fans on Sunday, he needs support, win or lose.