After a dramatic international break, the Premier League returns with an intriguing top-of-the-table clash between Arsenal and Southampton at the Emirates Stadium. It is a match that features two teams, just three points apart, who have exceeded all expectations this season.
After an opening-day home defeat to Aston Villa, few will have predicted, including, as he has admitted, Arsene Wenger, that they would be at the top of the table in November. But, as those teams around them have struggled to adapt to new managers or overhauled squads, Arsenal have flourished with their mere slight tweaks. Those alterations have been key, with the signings of Mesut Ozil and Mathieu Flamini adding creativity and tenaciousness, respectively, while Aaron Ramsey has been like a new arrival such has been the radicalness of his transformation.
Wenger’s side, though, are in need of bouncing back against Southampton. Having gone on an incredible run, they succumbed to defeat in their biggest test of the Premier League campaign to date, with a lackluster 1-0 defeat to Manchester United. While Arsenal were not outplayed, they were certainly outfought by the Premier League champions.
A virus that spread through the camp as well as having claimed a hugely impressive win in an intense Champions League duel at Borussia Dortmund just four days before could well be used as mitigating factors. Yet, given their propensity for mental collapse in recent years, getting back on the winning track as soon as possible will be key.
Another ankle problem picked up by Jack Wilshere in international duty is a concern and could render him unavailable for the weekend. Wilshere may well not have been selected anyway, however, especially with Theo Walcott having returned to fitness. While he lacks the technical ability of many of his teammates, his availability gives Wenger greater flexibility with his selections and offers something Arsenal lacked in his absence: searing pace and natural width.
Walcott’s return is set to come against the club where he got his initial football education. It has been a dramatic rise for the winger’s former club and one that has been largely based on their ability to develop young talent. Chief among them is captain Adam Lallana, who won his first caps for England in the past week on the back of some fine performances at the start of the season to help lift Southampton into third place in the Premier League.
Further youth products Luke Shaw and James Ward-Prowse, as well as fellow young English talent like Jay Rodriguez and Nathaniel Clyne have been supplemented by the club showing ambition by putting their hands in their pockets. Dejan Lovren has helped to greatly improve a defense that was porous last season, while Victor Wanyama and Dani Osvaldo have also been brought in for considerable fees.
But key to Southampton’s performances has been the coaching of Mauricio Pochettino. There was much criticism of his appointment last season, but his has vindicated the decision and more. The former Argentina international has what so many of his counterparts in the Premier League lack: a clear philosophy. More than that, his players have bought into his high-pressing style with such speed and enthusiasm.
A lack of passing ability and creativity in midfield means that Southampton are unlikely to maintain their current standing in the Premier League, but they are particularly equipped against better opposition which comes onto them. As against West Brom, Arsenal could struggle against a team that works incredibly hard without the ball and can break quickly upfield.
Prediction: Arsenal 1-1 Southampton
Sports reporter, mainly focusing on my native sport of soccer, but also dabbling in some tennis and Formula One.