"I think the team was remarkable attitude-wise. We were competitive and serious." - Arsene Wenger
Two wins in a row, two clean sheets in a row. Things are looking up for Arsenal as they enter their most hectic spell of the season.
An early exit from the Capital One Cup gives them a midweek breather in a fortnight, and you wouldn't bet against significant rotation for next week's trip to Galatasaray. All the same, this run of eight games in 30 days - bookended by encounters with Southampton - could define Arsenal's Premier League campaign.
|Arsenal: Gibbs (ankle - fitness test), Monreal (knee - fitness test), Ospina (thigh), Debuchy (ankle), Szczesny (hip), Arteta (calf), Walcott (groin), Wilshere (ankle), Ozil (knee), Gnabry (knee)
Southampton: Rodriguez (knee), Ward-Prowse (ankle/foot), Gallagher (knee), Schneiderlin (groin/pelvis)
Since that defeat to Manchester United - the manner of which left players, fans and the manager shaking their heads in despair - Arsenal have been rewarded for doughty displays against Borussia Dortmund and West Bromwich Albion.
"I was really pleased with our serious and committed attitude [at West Brom], two-and-a-half days after Dortmund, where we had to give a lot," Arsene Wenger told Arsenal.com.
"I think the team was remarkable attitude-wise. We were competitive and serious. Unfortunately, we couldn't kill the game off, but to be 1-0 up and keep a clean sheet was very positive."
It's no coincidence that Laurent Koscielny's return to the side made Arsenal a tougher nut to crack at The Hawthorns.
The France international slotted seamlessly into the back four after eight weeks out, and he clearly improves those around him. Koscielny's covering pace and anticipation complements Per Mertesacker's positional sense, and it was reassuring to see last season's bedrock back together.
"He did well," said Wenger, who also praised Olivier Giroud after his first start since August. "Both of them are a little bit short of competitive games, but their basic fitness was good, their attitude is always very good and it's good to see them back."
Another star of Saturday's win was Santi Cazorla. The club's Player of the Season after a stellar debut campaign, Cazorla has rediscovered his 2012/13 form and set up the only goal for Danny Welbeck at West Brom.
"What was more surprising was that it was with an overlap," noted Wenger. "At the moment, I think when Santi plays in central midfield he is very influential in the fluency of our passing, the consistency of our technical quality and when he has the ball, you always expect something from him.
"He is at an age where you can take the maximum of your qualities and still be very strong physically, and that's what's happening with him at the moment."
Wenger was hopeful of having at least one of his frontline left backs available to face Southampton - Kieran Gibbs and Nacho Monreal's involvement is subject to late fitness tests, while Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is expected to shake off a knock.
Emiliano Martinez will continue in goal with Wojciech Szczesny still nursing a hip problem, and Calum Chambers is set to face his former club for the second time this season.
It's difficult not to admire Southampton.
Written off after a summer exodus of key players, the south coast's premier club has overcome its doubters and a tough run of fixtures to climb to third in the Premier League.
"When Santi plays in central midfield he is very influential in the fluency of our passing, the consistency of our technical quality, and when he has the ball, you always expect something from him"
Southampton have the best defensive record in England and a bevy of exciting new recruits, and despite a chastening 3-0 defeat to Manchester City at the weekend, they have every reason to be confident tonight - the Saints beat Arsenal 2-1 at Emirates Stadium in September.
Wenger has more reason than most to respect Southampton - Theo Walcott, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Chambers all emerged from their production line - and he is mightily impressed by their evolution under new manager Ronald Koeman.
"They lost good players and they bought well," said Wenger. "They started well and they got a severe defeat at home on Saturday, but until then, they did very well.
"They recruited mainly strikers because their defence is quite similar to last season, their midfield as well. Nathaniel Clyne, Jose Fonte, Yoshida - they bought Bertrand and kept Schneiderlin.
"They’ve still got all these players like Cork and Ward-Prowse who were there last year. It’s just their strikers, who have come in very well."
Southampton threatened to challenge for a Champions League place last season and they look even better equipped this term after collecting 26 points from 13 games.
"You get that question every year and I think we will know much more about that in March," said Wenger. "They are one of the contenders to do it."
Arsenal are contenders too, of course, but they can ill-afford to give the Saints too much breathing space. A defeat tonight would leave the Gunners nine adrift of Koeman's team; a win will propel them back towards the top four.
With Chelsea doing their best to make the title a one-horse race and Manchester City beginning to flex their muscles, this is a time for Arsenal to keep in touch with the pacesetters and rein in those beneath the top two.
The signs are promising. Giroud's return has given the Gunners something extra in attack, plus added height when they defend set-pieces. Alexis and Oxlade-Chamberlain are brimming with confidence, and Koscielny is a reassuring presence at the back.
Two wins in a row, two clean sheets in a row. Make it three of each and Wenger's men will be on a roll as they embark on a critical month.
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