01 January 2015

Can Arsenal overtake Southampton?

We at Arsenal may pride ourselves on our financial prudence and our ability to so consistently finish fourth despite losing so many players to our rivals, but we have to admit that, on some levels, we are to Southampton what Chelsea or Man City have been to us. Where might Southampton be if they still had Theo, the Ox, or Chambers? Ironically, they might not be sitting as high as they are at the moment. After all, we've poached these players and are still trailing the Saints (if only by the slimmest of margins). If anything, then, we might have to consider just how Southampton stay up despite, or even because of, losing players to other, bigger, clubs.

Perhaps no summer has been crueler to any club than the summer of 2014 was to Southampton, who lost five key players—one of them to Arsenal—along with a manager, and this after one of the club’s best finishes in over ten years. Gone were Pochettino, Shaw, Lallana, Lovren, Chambers, and Lambert, the core of a bright, ambitious, and accomplished squad. They very nearly lost Morgan Schneiderlin as well in a process that must have tainted if not poisoned the relationship there. Surely, bereft of such players, Southampton would plummet to the bottom of the Prem. If only. If anything, the Saints have outdone themselves, earning six points more than they had to this point a year ago, rising from ninth to fourth.  Arsenal, by contrast, have fallen nine points off their own pace, falling from first to fifth.

New Year's Day offers us a chance to see if we can overtake the Saints, who had gotten off to a tremendous start, spending six weeks in second place behind Chelsea only to struggle through a tough string of fixtures, resulting in five losses in a row—visits from Man City and Man U bookended a trip to the Emirates, but more-surprising losses away to Burnley and at Sheffield United (in the League Cup) seemed to take the wind ouf the Saints' sails. However, they've roared back, scoring six goals in two matches to overrun Everton and Crystal Palace before doggedly holding Chelsea to a 1-1 draw. That they held off a furious Chelsea attack without the injured Nathaniel Cly,ne or, for that matter, Morgan Schneiderlin, who was sent off, suggests that the Saints are much more than a flash in the pan.

We might tell ourselves that we lost to Southampton in the League Cup because we fielded a mixed squad, but while we're at it, let's remember that our more recent 1-0 win came in large part because of the late injury to Toby Alderweireld, reducing Southampton to ten men because Koeman had already been forced to use his three subs. It's unlikely that we can count on a similar setback on Thursday. On the other hand, Forster may have to give an encore performance, turning in as much of a blinder as he did in early December, if not more so. Injuries and suspension have depleted an already-thin squad, and that might be enough for us to find openings.

We may see a cameo from Theo Walcott, whom Arsène said is "ready to play." We could then see a front three of Walcott, Alexis, and Ox because Giroud is still suspended, Welbeck might have a thigh problem, and Sanogo and Podolski have little to no chance of starting in such a high-stakes match. The pace that the aforementioned trio offer could overrun the Saints' defense, which is one of the stoutest in the league at the moment. If we find our way to a draw or worse, a loss, we run the risk of falling below West Ham and Tottenham. A win would see us overtake the Saints and perhaps draw level with Man U, who travel to the Britannia to face Stoke. A win is a tall order, but it's at least on the menu.