Inside Info is back and this week we speak to a man whose loyalties will be tested on New Year's Day when Arsenal pay a visit to St. Mary's. Jason Robert is a St. Mary's Musings writer, but an avid Arsenal fan. We talk Theo Walcott, Saints' top four chances and why Morgan Schneiderlin is the perfect fit for Arsenal.
St. Mary's Musings: What were your season expectations before it had started and have they changed since?
Jason Robert: I think most Arsenal fans expect that the team will contend for the title, and I was no different. Having led the table for the most part of last season and winning The FA Cup, seemed to suggest that this group of players would be raring to go and might go one better this season. With the addition of all the summer signings, it obviously made for some really optimistic outlook at the start of the season.
Needless to say, like a supernova, that dream burned bright and die young. While we added good players to the squad, we did not address the glaring hole in the centre of defense, with only two senior centre backs in the form of Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny. The latter's injury problems means that Per has been paired with Nacho Monreal (a left back), Calum Chambers (might grow into a centre back, but spent most of his young career as a right back), and Mathieu Debuchy (a right back), which is not an ideal situation and contributed to some of our defensive mishaps. <!-- ######## START FLOATED VIDEO SNIPPET ######## -->
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The defensive midfielder position is also one that hasn't been addressed, though I must say it was rather unfortunate that Mikel Arteta, who plays in that role for us, has been mostly injured this season. While he is getting on a bit for a midfielder at 32, picking up the same kind of injuries on three separate occasions is bizarre and that exposes Arsenal's lack of physicality in the centre of midfield. I like Mathieu Flamini, but he's really not the man for the job.
So in short, I expect Arsenal to contend for the title, but based on the first 19 games, another top-four finish would suffice, all things considered.
SMM: With Southampton unexpectedly lying fourth in the league, how do you compare Saints to Arsenal in general?
JR: I would say there are similarities between the two clubs and not just because they're vying for fourth place as it stand. Both sides have managers that likes their teams to keep possessions and plays attacking football. There's also obvious holes in the side, in Arsenal's case it's the lack of depth in defense and the non-existent defensive midfielder. In Southampton's case, it's a lack of depth in midfield, which I think was part of the reason for their five-game losing streak earlier this month. Also, they'll need someone else to take off the load of Graziano Pellè, who I think has taken to Premier League like duck to water, but he can't do it alone. Though you can probably say the same about us and Alexis Sánchez.
SMM: Can Southampton really stake a claim to finish in the top four?
JR: I'm on the bubble about this. On the one hand, I think they could and that would be such a great story. A club that had their squad (both players and manager) gutted by the big boys of Premier League, but went on to show that they can comeback stronger. The schedule is also on their side as well as they won't have to play Manchester City, Arsenal, and Manchester United in the space of nine days.
On the other hand, a spot in the top-four might come at the expense of Arsenal, who are currently just a spot below The Saints. The one thing that may hurt Southampton's quest for the top four is their lack of depth, especially in midfield. There was a period when Steven Davis, Morgan Schneiderlin, Jack Cork, and James Ward-Prowse was all missing which coincides with the team's losing streak in late November to mid-December. Unless that is addressed this January, it might haunt them somewhere down the line, Some of the summer signings, namely Dušan Tadić and Pellè, has also hit a bit of rough patch the last few weeks, and they'll need the likes of Sadio Mané (who will left for African Cup of Nations duty with Senegal) and Shane Long, as well as the midfielders to pitch in with some goals. Keeping hold of their current players from prospective buyers this January is also a priority.
SMM: Of all the Saints players to have left for Arsenal, who do you like the most and why?
JR: I have to say it's Theo Walcott, he was equally exciting and frustrating at times, though that might be down to the amount of pressure that he was under, having signed for Arsenal as a 16-year old. On his best day, he can be downright unplayable the pace he's got and also his finishing. That being said, injuries and consistency means that his best day come few and far in between, but I've come to the acceptance that he might not emulate the man that wore number 14 before him, but he can still be a good player in his own right.
SMM: If you could sign any one Saints player, who would it be and why?
JR: Morgan Schneiderlin. As I've said, we're in desperate need for some physical presence and steel in midfield, something that Schneiderlin has in spades. It would also rile up Spurs fans, which is a bonus.
SMM: If you could sell any of the Arsenal regular starting XI, who would it be and why?
JR: Hmm, you said a regular starting XI, so this limits my options a bit. Probably Mathieu Flamini, though I don't know if there's any Saints fan that would want him. Other than that, Yaya Sanogo might add some depth to the attacking line, though he might not er, necessarily score goals.
SMM: Finally, what are your predictions for the game?
JR: I'd like for Arsenal to win and leapfrog The Saints, but all things considered it's probably going to end in a draw. Despite recent wins over QPR and West Ham, they did not looked convincing in both games. We've already lost against Southampton in The Capital One Cup, and the 1-0 win at The Emirates in early December was a hard-fought one. So playing at St. Mary's, on the back of a solid performance against Chelsea, a point for each side is how it would probably end.