Defensive worries as Southampton come to town

7 Min Read

It’s Friday night football this evening, top versus bottom as we take on Southampton.

On paper, games like this should go one way, but with both teams absolutely scrapping for something important, it adds an element of unpredictability. It looks grim for the Saints, but it’s still so tight down there that a couple of good results could be huge in terms of Premier League survival.

Certainly Mikel Arteta isn’t taking anything for granted, saying:

After analysing Southampton in a lot of detail, they have impressed me quite a lot. If you watched the last game that they played, how they lost by the margin they lost, that margin wasn’t there. What Ruben and the coaches are doing is really good, and the rewards maybe haven’t been there in terms of the results in some games, but they are a really good team.

His main focus, of course, will be his own team, and there wasn’t much that was positive when it comes to team news. He appeared to rule Oleksandr Zinchenko out because of his groin strain, and while I guess you never quite know with Arteta, the player’s history with muscular injuries/absences makes me think this isn’t some kind of double bluff. The more serious update involved William Saliba, about whom he said:

Regarding William, we still have to wait a little bit more. He’s not progressing as quickly as we hoped and it is a bit delicate so we want to be certain that when we push him, he’s ready to absorb the load and the risk that we’ll take, and that’s not possible at the moment.

Then when asked if it might be a season ending injury, continued:

I don’t know, it’s a bit early to know. Probably next week we’ll have more certainty. There is some evolution, he’s doing more activity but is not there yet to start to throw him into the pitch at the level the sessions demand to compete in this league.

At this point, it sounds like unless there’s a significant improvement very quickly, his campaign is done and dusted. Maybe they’re hanging on to see if he can make Newcastle, because throwing him in against Man City seems very unlikely at this point. Yes, he’s doing some work in the gym, we saw that video, but I’m not sure that doing some light cycling alongside Mohamed Elneny who is ruled out until next season is any great indicator of an imminent return.

Throughout the week, I’ve seen all kinds of defensive permutations mooted online. They range from playing left backs at right back; playing Granit Xhaka at left-back to facilitate that; introducing an 18 year old with no first team experience at the most pressurised point of the season; and changing formation to a back three despite the fact that would require deploying Bukayo Saka as a right-wing back. Like many of you, I can see the very obvious gap between Saliba and Rob Holding who is, in essence, our third choice for that position.

Ideally, in Saliba’s absence, you shift Ben White back into the centre and play Takehiro Tomiyasu at right back, but the injury to the Japan international has scuppered our ability to do that. I just don’t think we’ve got a lot in the way of options. I’m sure Arteta and his staff have considered all the possible changes they could make, but unless it’s absolutely necessary, completely rejigging the backline at this point feels unwise.

There are things Holding can do better, and hopefully this week there’s been some focus on that on the training ground. We’re not talking about a grand metamorphosis – just take fewer touches when we’re in possession, and move the ball more quickly with a bit more variety. It should not be beyond him.

Ahead of him, I wouldn’t be surprised if we see a change or two. I wonder if Thomas Partey’s ongoing issue – one which saw him hooked midway through the second half at West Ham – might be a consideration with Man City on the horizon. Similarly, Leandro Trossard has done little wrong since his arrival, and while we’ve scored goals in his absence from the starting XI, he must be pushing hard for a place in the front three. I know this is the only game we have on our minds, but managers make decisions based on the fixture list too, and next week looms large.

Unquestionably there will have been conversations about game management, and how we deal with the ‘problem’ of going ahead if that happens again today. I hope it does. I prefer it when we score early, and to be fair the dropped points in the last two games after doing that have been uncharacteristic. The crowd can play a part too, Mikel Arteta says ‘It’s gotta be electric‘, on a Friday night let’s hope that’s exactly the case on and off the pitch. Our margin for error has disappeared in the last couple of weeks, but tonight gives us a chance to go 7 clear of City, albeit having played two games more.

Let’s make the most of it.

Come on Arsenal!

Right, I’ll leave you with a brand new Arsecast, chatting to Tim Stillman about a difficult week and another big injury for Arsenal Women, before I’m joined by Lewis Ambrose to talk about media reaction to our recent games, Rob Holding and lots more. All the links you need are below, happy listening.

Catch you later for the game, the live blog, and all the rest.

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