We are back in Premier League action on Tuesday against Watford, and ahead of the game Rob Kelly sat down with Arsene Wenger to preview the match.
THE BOSS’ WATCHING BRIEF
If Arsene Wenger had any concerns about how his enforced absence from the touchline would affect his side, they would have been quickly blown away at St Mary’s Stadium on Saturday.
Three first-half goals, followed by two after the interval, made for a hugely-satisfactory evening on the south coast and gave the Gunners a timely boost heading into a massive week for the club.
For not only do they face Watford on Tuesday - the same night as Premier League leaders Chelsea visit Liverpool - but they also must travel to Stamford Bridge next weekend.
Arsene Wenger may have to watch from the stands for two potentially seminal games of the season, but if his team perform like they did against Southampton then he will be one very happy viewer.
OP = Outfield Players
“I liked the way we approached the game, we started in a strong way and I liked as well that we kept a good team discipline and were relentless until the end,” the manager told Arsenal Player. “Overall it was a strong performance - it is a good way to start the week but of course we have two other big targets now, so let’s cope with the next one.
“It was a bit frustrating, physically to be separated from the action [at St Mary’s] - you feel more powerless than usual. But overall I can trust my assistant, Steve Bould, who was with Neil [Banfield] on the bench and we could communicate, so overall it went well.
“The most important thing is that the team won the game and I think when you can be in the dressing room before the game and at half-time, it helps.
“You see better [from the stands] the way your team is positioned on the field globally - you have a better vision of the compactness of the team and of the problems that you could have tactically. What is for sure is that the tactical aspect is clearer, the clarity is stronger but you miss a little bit the physical closeness to the team.”
The five goals we scored at Southampton took us to 81 in all competitions this season, a tally we only reached on April 9 last term. It is way ahead of the curve, and with Danny Welbeck fit and firing, Theo Walcott marking his return with a hat-trick and Lucas involved in eight goals in his last eight games, the individual options Wenger has to choose from offer real encouragement to the manager.
“It’s a combination that we have to find in every single game, to use the players when they are capable of performing well,” he said. “Overall, we have to respect the balance of the team as well.
“At the moment everybody has a good attitude and contributes when they can, and that’s why it’s important for us to stay in all competitions. We have a big squad, and many players are coming back like Danny. It’s very important there is no repeat of what happened to him, but the signs are good. He’s shown again that when he’s fit and available, he’s a top-quality player.”
OX’S CENTRAL MIDFIELD PROSPECTS
While Welbeck deservedly dominated the news cycle following his two well-taken goals at Southampton, equally worthy of praise was Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.
The England international has primarily been used out wide during his near six-year spell in north London, but flourished in central midfield against his former club.
He finished the game with a 91 per cent pass completion rate, made seven recoveries and three key passes - including a sensational lofted pass that bisected the Saints defence for Welbeck’s second strike.
Wenger was delighted with Oxlade-Chamberlain’s display, and says he is a serious long-term option as a central midfielder.
“He has so many qualities which make you think he can play on the flanks because he’s powerful, has pace and can dribble, but the position where he really looks like blossoming is in the middle,” the manager said.
|We’ve won our last seven league matches against Watford, netting 19 goals in the process (2.7 per game).
Only against Newcastle (9) are we on a longer active winning run in league competition than against Watford (7 - also seven wins vs Charlton).
We have conceded only four goals in their last seven Premier League home matches; all of which have been penalties.
“I like his game, I liked his resilience, his tactical discipline and his defensive qualities [at Southampton]. They were absolutely tremendous because he blocked some shots, was always in a good position defensively and that is certainly his future position.
“When you’re young and come into the team, sometimes they push you wide to see what’s going on. After, you come back into the middle but it’s a good learning curve to go out on to the flanks because you are pushed against the line, you have to move well to get the ball and you have to have a short technique because there’s not much space there. After, when you move centrally, that helps you to be more efficient.”
Indeed, many of Oxlade-Chamberlain’s best performances in an Arsenal shirt have come in the middle of the park, particularly the home game against AC Milan in 2012 and the away game at Bayern Munich two years later.
“It’s not a coincidence,” Wenger said. “He could perform in big games there and that means his real qualities are there. I always thought so.
“The problem for him now is about being consistent and to be physically ready and available. He has always had small injuries which have kept him out of the game. It takes your focus away a little bit as well, because you focus on your injury and not on the game.
“For me, his target is to now be there, to be absolutely focused on the team. To be focused on the game, it is important that he doesn’t have any small problems."
STING IN THE HORNETS’ TAIL?
It has been a difficult season for Watford so far, made all the more surprising since they made a positive start under new manager Walter Mazzarri.
However, their form has tailed off alarmingly to the point where they were beaten 1-0 by League One side Millwall in the FA Cup on Sunday.
|Arsenal: Cazorla (ankle), Xhaka (suspended), Elneny (international duty)
Watford: Pantilimon (ankle), Kabasele (doubt - leg), Behrami (hamstring), Amrabat (ankle), Success (hamstring), Pereyra (knee)
Mazzarri had fielded a weakened team for the match, but it was the Hornets’ seventh defeat in their past 12 games, a run that stretches back to the end of November and has only offered up two wins.
Wenger was not surprised to see his opposite number rotate his side for Sunday’s game, and expects a tough battle on Tuesday night.
“I believe this season is a bit of special timing with the games being on Tuesday, Wednesday in midweek [after the FA Cup],” the Arsenal manager said.
“The teams are focused a bit more to rest their players, especially the teams who feel they are still not completely out of the relegation battle. So they maybe protected a bit more the Premier League game, which you can understand.
“What is important for us is to focus, to repeat the quality of our performances. We have created a run again and it’s important that we maintain that, no matter how good Watford will be.
“It’s always difficult games in the Premier League. We have experienced that recently against Burnley. I think our attitude is spot on and we are ready to fight on Tuesday night.”
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