Arsenal Facing a Tricky Tie in Southampton at the Emirates This Weekend
Let's forget, for a moment, just how impressive this start of season has been for Arsenal.
The goalless draw to Sunderland, compounded by the goalless draw to Stoke, had some running for the hills.
But perspective is always welcome, particularly in the world of football.
And when one considers that in their next match (following the postponed-because-of-deluge Reading encounter) Sunderland went on the road and held Swansea City, holders of perhaps the most impressive resume to start the season (speaking of course in terms of aesthetics and results), that initial draw at the Emirates takes on a shinier luster.
Let's not forget, as well, that Arsenal were working with two new signings (Lukas Podolski, Santi Cazorla) into their first competitive starts that day, and a third (Olivier Giroud) came on as a substitute.
Then, to Stoke at the Britannia. Were it not for a flailing, last-gasp challenge from Andy Wilkinson on Lukas Podolski (quite literally, mind you—replays showed the shot strike his trailing arm) in the goalmouth area, Arsenal very nearly could have emerged 1-0 victors at an environ where many a would-be top-four side fell (Liverpool) or were held (both Manchester sides, Chelsea, Everton along with the Gunners) last season.
But whatever worries might have emanated from those first two proceedings—and if we're being quite honest, there weren't many—were washed away like the evening tide when Arsenal marched into the red end of Liverpool last weekend and produced the sort of practical display so often seen from their opponents in recent seasons.
The Gunners—many thanks to new assistant manager Steve Bould, whose defensive aptitude has already been seen in spades this season—held firm at the back, as they've done so far this season, in which they have yet to concede a goal, and they were ruthless on the counterattack, with Podolski and Cazorla linking up twice (each had a goal and an assist) to give the Gunners five points from a possible nine.
When one considers the realms Arsenal have entered in the early going—the Britannia, Anfield—five points from nine looks rather good, indeed.
But now, work must be done again, and this time with yet another confounding international break having disrupted what could have been a wonderful surge of momentum following the Liverpool trip.
Nearly all of Arsenal's key contributors have been away with their international sides for this round of two games, and with UEFA's qualifying fixtures set for Tuesday, likely won't return to London until varying times on Wednesday.
Many will have played all of, or a part of, two games in four days time, so one would think that Arsene Wenger's training sessions will be light ahead of Saturday's clash with Southampton at the Emirates.
Some good news for Gooners is that Abou Diaby, so good against Liverpool yet so terribly prone to injury, will not play for France on Tuesday night against Belarus. That should give him extra time to prepare for Saturday.
Theo Walcott is another that won't feature on Tuesday night, with the winger (who joined Arsenal from Southampton in winter 2006) ruled out of England's match against Ukraine because of illness.
With Wojciech Szczesny reported to have resumed full training after missing the Stoke and Liverpool matches with a rib injury, that gives Wenger another vital piece. With Szczesny's fellow first teamers Bacary Sagna and Jack Wilshere set to resume full training in the coming weeks, the future's looking good.
But first, Southampton
In last season's corresponding fixture—I'm speaking of the first match following the September international break—Arsenal welcomed then-newly-promoted Swansea City to the Emirates.
The Welsh side had shown glimpses of the attractive passing football that would make them one of the stories of the 2011-12 EPL season (they finished a surprising 11th), but it was their resolute defense that was most impressive on that September afternoon in London.
Were it not for a disastrous mistake from Swans keeper Michel Vorm, and a fortuitous bounce that fell to Andrei Arshavin, who coolly slotted home from a tight angle to give Arsenal a 1-0 lead, the match very easily could have finished in a goalless draw.
Given how poorly Arsenal had started last season's campaign, that result would have been tantamount to disaster.
Turning toward this season, Arsenal faces the Saints in league play for the first time since the 2004-05 season.
Any comparisons with Swansea, at least in terms footballing philosophy, would be a stretch, but it wouldn't be too far-fetched to envision a scenario in which Southampton are brushing up against the middle of the table in a few months' time, just as Swansea did last season.
What to do about Rickie Lambert
This season, things are looking much better, but Southampton will not be an easy opponent. Save for a disappointing home opener against Wigan on Match Day Two, in which they lost 2-0, they have given both Manchester sides fits, losing 3-2 on both occasions after having led for significant portions of the match.
Both goals against Manchester City at the Eastlands were sensational counterattacks, and against United forward Rickie Lambert—last season's leading scorer in the Championship—got his second strike in three games, and also provided the assist for Morgan Schneiderlin's 55th-minute goal.
Lambert was a controversial omission from Saints manager Nigel Atkins's starting lineup against City, but it is quite telling that, after scoring in that match, he has started the past two league fixtures.
The 30-year-old could arguably constitute the most in-form striker Arsenal have faced this season (Luis Suarez will earn votes, but he's been far too profligate in front of goal), and will give the back four its sternest test yet.
That Lambert is so good in the air could prove worrisome for the Gunners, who have famously struggled to combat that sort of threat in year's past. (In Arsenal's July 14 match against Southampton, a 45-minute encounter in the Markus Liebherr Memorial Cup that eventually ended in penalties, Jay Rodriguez scored from a header in normal time.)
Where Lambert has fired on all cylinders, Rodriguez, who was made Southampton's record signing this past summer, has been more muted. The £6 million man is a tireless worker, and has been excellent in Atkins's pressing schemes. One wonders if he might break his duck against Arsenal this weekend.
(Considering that Rodriguez scored 21 goals for Burnley a season ago, it's not too far removed from the realm of possibility.)
Southampton's defense is its weakest suit, but that hardly goes for the midfield, which anchored by Adam Lallana (who earned his first England call-up this past weekend), has been fantastic in the early going.
Arsenal's own midfield has been excellent, seen best in the superb display against Liverpool. The trio of Diaby, Cazorla and Mikel Arteta has been fantastic so far, and each of those players should retain his spot at the weekend.
The international hangover, seen so glaringly against Swansea last season, will be a worry—particularly against a Southampton side that is so clinical on the counterattack and from crosses into the area.
Few teams have been as unlucky as the Saints in the early going, and their road form has been a revelation so far. There's no reason to think it will dissipate on Saturday, meaning that Arsenal's back four will have its work cut out for it.
Per Mertesacker, Thomas Vermaelen's partner in central defense for the first three league matches, would seem the most vulnerable to lose his spot with Laurent Koscielny having regained fitness, but given the tall German's impressive displays so far, that would seem harsh from Wenger.
Other than Mertesacker, and Szczesny taking over from Vito Mannone in goal, Arsenal should send out the same side from last weekend.
What will be interesting, then, is to see if they can build from the strong points of the Liverpool match. It certainly won't be an easy task, but it could have important reverberations for the rest of the season.
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