This could be a vital month in determining the seriousness of Arsenal’s title challenge. Arsene Wenger’s men play four Premier League matches in February, the first of which comes against Ronald Koeman’s Southampton.
The Gunners need a win. They have failed to pick up three points in each of their last three league games, and they haven’t even scored in the last two. Defeat in this match would mean losing in consecutive home games for the first time since November 2010.
That’s a very real risk. In the Boxing Day match between these two, Southampton were completely dominant and ran out 4-0 winners. Arsenal know they need a dramatic improvement if they’re to beat an in-form Saints side who will be well rested after not playing this past weekend.
Date: Tuesday, February 2
Time: 7.45 p.m. GMT/2.45 p.m. ET
Location: Emirates Stadium, London
Television coverage: Premier League Extra Time (U.S. only)
Streaming: NBC Sports Live Extra (U.S. only)
W (3-1) vs. Sunderland
D (3-3) vs. Liverpool
D (0-0) vs. Stoke
L (0-1) vs. Chelsea
W (2-1) vs. Burnley
L (1-0) vs. Southampton
L (1-2) vs. Crystal Palace
W (2-0) vs. Watford
W (3-0) vs. West Bromwich Albion
W (0-1) vs. Manchester United
While Arsenal have not won in their last three league games, Southampton are celebrating a trio of consecutive victories. There can be no doubt that the Saints have the better form heading into this game.
In 10 attempts, Wenger has only defeated Koeman twice. After Arsenal’s humbling at the St. Mary’s Stadium on Boxing Day, the Frenchman is utterly determined to get some measure of revenge.
The Gunners boss clearly feels there is a score to be settled.
Per Arsenal.com, Wenger said:
They gave us a tough game last time and we have to put that right. It is a very important time in the season as we go into big, big games and have 13 matches to go.
They were dominant in the challenges and the duels. We just came out of a very tough game at Man City, and maybe didn’t have the urgency to cope with that. We were a bit unlucky with three goals on the decisions of the referee as well.
The message [this time] is that we play at home and we want to put things right and put a strong performance in because the strength we show at home now in the remaining games can be decisive.
Southampton boss Koeman seems to think there’s an argument that the 4-0 defeat last time round could actually work to Arsenal’s advantage.
Per SB Nation, the Dutchman said:
I don’t know if it’s a benefit for us, maybe it’s a benefit for Arsenal if they like to show a little bit of revenge.
They will be very prepared because they know we played four times against Arsenal - we won twice at home, we won the League Cup game at Arsenal and we lost in the last second by 1-0 when we played with 10 players.
That’s tough for them. They know it’s difficult to beat Southampton. We have a good record when we play the big teams.
It’s clear there will be a strong psychological element at play in this fixture. It’ll be fascinating to see which of these two managers is able to conjure the best performance from his players.
Wenger made nine changes for the 2-1 FA Cup win over Burnley, and will rotate his side heavily again for the match with Southampton.
Petr Cech will come back in at the expense of David Ospina, while Per Mertesacker will return from his one-game suspension to bring his leadership to the centre of defence. At full-back, Spanish pair Hector Bellerin and Nacho Monreal will come in for Englishmen Calum Chambers and Kieran Gibbs.
This match will also allow Wenger a chance to see if Francis Coquelin and Aaron Ramsey can strike up an effective central-midfield pairing. Egyptian Mohamed Elneny is likely to have to wait for his Premier League debut on the substitutes bench.
Wenger may also choose to rotate his centre-forward. Olivier Giroud played on Saturday against Burnley, so the Gunners boss may take the chance to hand a start to Theo Walcott against his former club.
Predicted Arsenal XI (4-2-3-1): Petr Cech; Hector Bellerin, Per Mertesacker, Laurent Koscielny, Nacho Monreal; Francis Coquelin, Aaron Ramsey; Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Mesut Ozil, Alexis Sanchez; Theo Walcott.
Southampton’s last result was a 1-0 win at Old Trafford, so Koeman is unlikely to be in a hurry to make too many changes.
Graziano Pelle and Steven Davis remain doubts through injury.
With Pelle’s participation in question, Koeman’s one change might well be the introduction of Charlie Austin. The former Queens Park Rangers man made a dream debut at Old Trafford by nodding home a late winner. That could be enough to edge him ahead of Shane Long in the pecking order. If he does start, Arsenal will be worried—he has scored in both his league appearances against the Gunners thus far.
Predicted Southampton XI (4-2-3-1): Fraser Forster; Cedric Soares, Virgil van Dijk, Jose Fonte, Ryan Bertrand; Victor Wanyama, Jordie Clasie; Dusan Tadic, Sadio Mane, Matt Targett; Charlie Austin.
Players to Watch
Arsenal: Alexis Sanchez
If Wenger picks Alexis Sanchez to start, it will be the first time he has been able to do so in a Premier League match since November.
His recent record in the league isn’t actually a particularly good—Alexis has failed to find the net in 16 of his last 19 Premier League games.
However, he has scored in each of his two matches with Southampton at the Emirates Stadium. He’ll be eager to mark his return by making it a hat-trick in this latest encounter.
Southampton: Fraser Forster
Since the giant England international returned from injury, the Saints have won all three of their league games—keeping three clean sheets in the process.
Without Forster, Southampton’s defence looked disorganised and lacking in conviction. His return seems to have brought stability to their back line once more.
Arsenal know the importance of a good goalkeeper more than most teams—Cech has been a huge success at the Emirates this season.
If Southampton are to come away from this game with anything, they’ll need another commanding performance from their towering goalkeeper.
James McNicholas is Bleacher Report's lead Arsenal correspondent and is following the club from a London base throughout 2015/16. Follow him on Twitter here.