Before every Arsenal fixture, we’ll bring you a Scouting Report on the Gunners’ next opponents.
Arsène Wenger's side travel to Southampton on New Year's Day, so to find out more we asked tactical expert Michael Cox and local journalist Gordon Simpson for their views.
Southampton’s extremely open strategy played perfectly into Arsenal’s hands earlier in the season at the Emirates, resulting in a 6-1 win for the Gunners, but Nigel Adkins' side have learnt their lessons from a tough start to life in the Premier League, and now play in a more disciplined, structured manner.
In particular, the full backs receive significantly more protection from the wide players. At the Emirates, Lukas Podolski and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain received the ball in plenty of space in one-versus-one situations against the full backs, while Gervinho drifted wide from a centre-forward position and Kieran Gibbs overlapped excellently.
Now, Southampton play in two banks of four without the ball, and are less vulnerable to crosses. Meanwhile the central attacking midfielder in their 4-2-3-1 has license to remain in a free position, ready to prompt quick attacks.
Although Southampton’s starting XI will be relatively similar to the side that Adkins used at the Emirates in September, young midfielder Jack Cork has come into the side, and plays a crucial role when Southampton have the ball. He’s not a holding midfielder nor a creative player, but performs a busy and important role somewhere in between, providing both energy and assured, calm passing.
He will probably see more of the ball than any Southampton player, and it might be wise for Santi Cazorla to position himself towards Cork when Arsenal don’t have the ball, instead allowing Morgan Schneiderlin freedom.
Up front, Rickie Lambert has adapted nicely to Premier League football, grabbing eight goals in 17 starts, including strikes in both of his last two matches. Although he doesn’t possesses tremendous pace, his movement is very good and he works the channels well on the break, meaning Arsenal should be wary of leaving too much space behind the full backs - Lambert will draw wide and drag centre backs out of position.
GORDON SIMPSON, SOUTHERN DAILY ECHO
Southampton struggled quite badly at the start of the season but have adapted well in the last two months. They’ve got more solid at the back and have plenty of quality going forward. They’ve got a bit more of a solid base and seem to be a bit more confident defensively, which has given them a decent base to go and attack.
Gaston Ramirez missed four or five weeks with a thigh injury, which disrupted his progress. Technically, he’s excellent. Him and Lallana are the best technical players Southampton have. I think they’re still waiting to see the absolute best from him. He’s shown lots of flashes of quality, but there haven’t been too many games yet where he’s taken complete control. When they get him on the ball and in space, he can be really dangerous.
I think home form is vital for every team that comes into the Premier League. It’s a very hard league to win away in. Southampton have struggled with that over the course of history. Their fate was always going to be decided by their home form. After losing their first two games, their form has picked up. They look a lot more confident at home and you’d hope they can carry on with that and pick up enough points at home to not have to worry too much about results away from home.
They play in a 4-2-3-1 with a flat back four and two defensive midfielders in front of that. They’ve got quite a solid base and that then allows the three more advanced midfielders and Lambert up front to do the attacking.
I think the game will be a struggle for Southampton. Arsenal have so much pace and ability going forward that if they turn it on, it’s going to be difficult for the hosts. I think they will give them much more of a test than they did at the Emirates. If Southampton got a draw, I think they’d be delighted.
Defensively, if you can get at Southampton, there are still obvious weaknesses. If Arsenal can get through the defensive midfield barrier, they could give Nigel Adkins’ team real problems.
I think Arsenal will just about nick it 2-1.Copyright 2016 The Arsenal Football Club plc. Permission to use quotations from this article is granted subject to appropriate credit being given to www.arsenal.com as the source