By Rob Kelly
“We feel strong at the Emirates. The only negative result we had recently was against Chelsea under very special circumstances. Overall we feel very strong there and it’s a good opportunity to take at this stage of the season.” - Arsène Wenger
There are certain results that seem to weigh more heavily than others on the shoulders of Arsène Wenger.
Ahead of the Boxing Day trip to Southampton, the Arsenal manager admitted that the previous season’s defeat at St Mary’s Stadium still played on his mind nearly 12 months later.
You can only imagine how he felt then, after seeing his side’s fine festive form come grinding to a halt as they were beaten 4-0 at the same venue this time around.
Now they have a chance to make amends. It has been a running theme in the build-up to Tuesday night’s match, mentioned by both the manager and Theo Walcott, and acts as added motivation as the Gunners seek to get back on track after three Premier League games without a win.
Exorcising their Southampton demons could also have the added bonus of seeing them return to the top of the table.
“[My memories of the game at St Mary’s] are all bad,” Wenger told Arsenal Player. “It was just after a very convincing game against Manchester City. We went to Southampton and were battered a bit.
|Arsenal: Wilshere (ankle), Welbeck (knee), Cazorla (knee), Rosicky (thigh)
Southampton: Davis (knock - doubt), Pelle (knee - doubt), Rodriguez (ankle), Gardos (knee), Ramirez (hamstring)
“We were not at the level in the challenges. On top of that, we had bad refereeing decisions on the same day. Altogether, it got us a bad defeat and that’s why we are cautious and we will prepare well for this game. It has become a very important game for us.”
Having seen his side approach something close to their attacking best against Burnley on Saturday, Wenger feels the team are back on an upward curve ahead of a run of four home games in the next five.
“We had a good performance overall, with our movement, with the quality of our passing,” the manager said. “The other positive is that we had players coming back who I could give a game, people like Coquelin and Alexis. They could get in the side again and have 70 minutes. That’s very positive.
“We feel strong at the Emirates. The only negative result we had recently was against Chelsea under very special circumstances. Overall we feel very strong there and it’s a good opportunity at this stage of the season to take.”
ONE TO WATCH
There are some players who need easing back into the first-team fray after injury - and then there is Alexis.
The Chile international comes in one speed - fast forward - and he was at his relentless, energetic best against Burnley on Saturday, claiming an assist before finishing off a rapid counter-attack to score the winner.
To have a high-class performer like Alexis in flying form, and fully refreshed after a spell on the sidelines, could be hugely important to Arsenal as they enter a crucial period in their season.
“It was not so much [a surprise to see him star] because he was ready two weeks ago. It was more for muscular precaution that I didn’t pick him, because I was a bit scared of a setback,” Wenger said. “He was ready and he had put the basics of work in.
“His efficiency is vital and he puts the defenders on the back foot. He’s not scared to take people on and he creates chances. That’s what you want from him.”
Wenger also welcomed Francis Coquelin back for his first start since November’s 1-1 draw at Norwich City, and Wenger feels his squad is filling out at just the right time.
“Coquelin is a bit shorter physically [than Alexis], but you could see that he had no apprehension to go into the challenges, so that is a positive. He needs a bit more fitness work,” the boss said.
“We have Arteta back, Coquelin back and Elneny who has come in and given a good, positive performance.
“I wouldn’t like to forget Alex Iwobi, who as well shows that in any position he’s a very good player and has a great future for the club. That’s very positive.”
It may not have been the most eye-catching of all the deals done during the January transfer window, but Southampton’s signing of Charlie Austin could turn out to be one of the most astute.
|Alexis has scored in both of his appearances against Southampton at Emirates Stadium for Arsenal
Southampton have scored a league-high 10 headed goals in the Premier League in 2015/16 and they have also fired in the most crosses from open play (436)
Southampton have won just one of their last 21 away trips to Arsenal, but that came under Ronald Koeman in the Capital One Cup (W1 D5 L15)
A born goalscorer, the 26-year-old has followed a similar path to that of Jamie Vardy, working his way up from non-league football to star in the Premier League.
Austin’s tally of 18 goals as QPR were relegated last season highlighted his attacking prowess - and he made an outstanding start to his Southampton career by scoring the winner at Old Trafford 10 days ago.
He has also netted in his two previous Premier League appearances against Arsenal, and Wenger is well aware of the need to keep a close on the striker.
“I was surprised that he wasn’t bought sooner and that he was quite a bargain when you look at his price,” the manager said. “He made the difference when he came on against Manchester United on a corner.
“Charlie Austin can score goals and he is another player who has come out of the lower leagues and has done extremely well.
“Southampton are a team who has the quality, because they also have players like Tadic, Mane, Shane Long and Pelle, who are very dangerous going forward. For us it’s important to keep them quiet and to turn up with high pace in our game.”