Arsenal travel to Southampton this week knowing that they cannot afford to drop any points in the race for the Premier League. St. Mary’s Stadium is a difficult place to go, but with fixtures against both Liverpool and Manchester United coming up in the next few weeks, this is a match that Arsenal need to win.
If they are to do so, Arsene Wenger will have to field his strongest available XI.
That means deploying the key defensive unit of Wojciech Szczesny, Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny. Mertesacker and Koscielny have shown themselves to be the most effective central defensive pairing in the Premier League this season: No side in the division have conceded fewer goals this season than Arsenal.
At right-back, Bacary Sagna will come back in to the team having been rested against Coventry City. At left-back, Arsene Wenger faces something of a selection headache, as both Nacho Monreal and Kieran Gibbs are in excellent form.
However, Gibbs has generally been Wenger’s first choice this season, starting 17 Premier League games thus far. By contrast, Morel has made the first XI just five times. With that in mind, Gibbs seems the man most likely to get the nod.
Wenger’s midfield selection will largely be determined by fitness issues. The Frenchman has previously intimated that both Aaron Ramsey and Mikel Arteta should be fit to return. However, throwing two players who are short of match practise in from the start would probably be unwise. With Arteta still on the comeback trail, Mathieu Flamini is all but certain to start. Without one of Arteta or Flamini, Arsenal’s midfield lacks balance and security.
Alongside Flamini, Jack Wilshere would have seemed certain to get the nod. However, a slight knock means he is in danger of missing out. If he does, Ramsey could face an immediate recall.
Olivier Giroud will certainly lead the line, since Nicklas Bendtner failed to convince in his start against Coventry. Giroud underlined his superiority by scoring within minutes of being introduced as Bendtner’s replacement.
Giroud’s heading ability will also be useful as Arsenal look to counter the aerial threat provided by Rickie Lambert at set pieces. The Frenchman scored both goals as Arsenal beat Southampton 2-0 at the Emirates earlier this season, and he will be eager to add to that tally.
The biggest question mark surrounds the three players playing behind Arsenal’s centre-forward. Mesut Ozil is a guaranteed starter, and the excellent form of Santi Cazorla suggests he will also make the line-up. The Spaniard now has four goals in his last four appearances.
For the third attacking midfielder, Arsene Wenger must choose between Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Serge Gnabry and Lukas Podolski. Given the fact that Oxlade-Chamberlain was withdrawn looking very fatigued against Coventry, Wenger’s choice probably comes down to the two Germans.
My suspicion is that he’ll opt for the younger of the pair. Although Podolski scored twice against Coventry, his inclusion would force Cazorla to switch to the right and possibly disrupt the established flow of the Arsenal team. Gnabry would slot easily in the right wing position without disturbing the balance or shape of the side.
Arsenal’s final XI would thus look like this:
It’s a side that’s more than good enough to go to Southampton and return with three precious points.