By Richard Clarke
So goodbye to 2012.
New year, new hope - that is normally the prevailing attitude as the world turns the page to start a fresh chapter.
And, despite a tough year, Arsenal fans can afford themselves that feeling too.
Their team come into 2013 on the back of four straight Premier League wins and, at the halfway stage, are nestled nicely enough in fifth. Plus, of course, fourth-place Tottenham are within their grasp too because that Boxing Day postponement has given Arsène Wenger’s side a game in hand.
Of course the last four-and-a-half months have been merely the prelude, the next four-and-a-half are the sticky bit.
Arsenal face tough opponents in the next rounds of the remaining knockout competitions (Swansea on Sunday in the FA Cup, Bayern Munich next month in the Champions League). So you won’t spot the glint of silver in Arsène Wenger’s eye right now.
The manager has much more on his plate. The Frenchman has been talking of a busy transfer window in January and on the opening day his side travel to a Southampton side who, despite their lowly position, have earned Wenger’s respect.
“For me they have good quality and they try to play,” he said. “They have a positive attitude towards the game and have technical players.
“They have a good midfield and they have Rickie Lambert up front, who can create chances at any moment.
“At home they are a force as they have a huge home support. That shows through the results. That’s why, maybe of all the teams that have come up, they are one that I feel will survive.
“They are not comfortable opponents for anyone,” he went on. “I saw them against Fulham, I watched them again against Stoke after our game with Newcastle. They are a team that has learned in the Premier League now. Usually you find a different team in February or in January to what you see in August or September.”
The statistics seem to support Wenger’s standpoint. Southampton may have slipped back down into the bottom three but they have lost just twice in their last nine Premier League games. Over Christmas, they have picked up creditable draws at Fulham and Stoke.
So right now they are hard to beat. All season they have shown a handy knack of defeating their rivals around the dropzone.
Meanwhile Lambert, for years labelled as a ‘lower division striker’, has seven Premier League goals, the same number as Arsenal’s top scorer, Theo Walcott.
Of course the latter was acquired from Southampton almost seven years ago. He was followed to Emirates Stadium by Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain a few years later. The Southampton academy has also produced other Premier League stars in the form of Gareth Bale and Nathan Dyer. Current youngsters like Adam Lallana, James Ward-Prowse and Luke Shaw seem to have been borne of the same profitable production line.
Southampton are one of the cradles for British talent in recent years.
“They have done a fabulous job in that,” said Wenger. “For me it is down to the quality of their scouting, their coaching and their education. When you look at Bale, what he is doing at Tottenham and they also had Walcott and they have Morgan Schneiderlin there now. They have brought through some players of top, top quality and they work well. So they must have fantastic scouting.”
Current manager Nigel Adkins can not take the sole credit for that, it was going on well before he arrived in September 2010. But the team’s rise back to the top flight has been masterminded by the 47-year-old Liverpudlian.
Southampton were struggling in League One when he arrived but they moved into the top two with a 4-0 win over Exeter on New Year’s Day 2011 (exactly two years before this match). In the following season they were in the top two throughout their Championship campaign as they returned to the top flight for the first time since 2005. Before that the division had been their home for the previous 27 seasons.
“Nigel Adkins has done a fantastic job but it is a tough thing to do and I believe he had a very difficult start,” said Wenger. “The club stuck with him and gave him support. When you see that, you always think the team he puts out is ready for a battle.”
Arsenal have shown that in the last four Premier League games. The wins over West Brom, Reading, Wigan and Newcastle have veered from the stylish to the stolen, the terrific to the troubled. But, in each, Wenger’s men have found a way.
The year 2012 was far from vintage for Arsenal but you can make the case that, right now, they are about as strong and convincing as they have been during the current season.
“We came from far behind and of course we need to be consistent if we want a chance to come back,” said Wenger. “That's what is at stake for us – to show we can be consistent from game to game.
"We have another opportunity now against Southampton and, as ever, it's important we take it.”
Arsenal: Fabianski (ankle), Diaby (match fitness), Santos (match fitness), Mertesacker (doubt – sickness)
Southampton: Lallana (knee)
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