Premier League football is back. As is Inside Info, the first feature of its kind - at least in Southampton circles - to get an opposition look ahead of each game. Yes, we know we should do these more.
Arsenal are supposedly in a bit of a bad state at the moment, though that does pale into comparison for what Southampton are currently going through. On paper, it’s meant to be a game both sides are looking at to kickstart their respective seasons. We all know which club is likelier to do that.
SMM: What were your expectations ahead of the season and how do they compare to what you’ve seen from Arsenal so far?
TSF: The end of last season was disappointing. The club struggled down the stretch, missing out on the top four that was there for the taking. Then lost to Chelsea in the Europa League Final, which denied the club another chance at getting into the Champions League.
However, the summer brought Nicolas Pepe, Kieran Tierney and the loan move for Real Madrid’s Dani Ceballos. Going into the season my expectation was that Arsenal would be a serious contender for the top four again, should reach the quarterfinals of the Europa League at a minimum, and hopefully find success in the FA Cup. However, things have not gone according to plan.
Arsenal is 6th, behind Sheffield United and already eight points off 4th place. It took Mesut Ozil forever to work into the squad and then there was the Granit Xhaka blowup. The team lacks confidence, and the fans are right there with them at the moment.
SMM: Are you pro or anti-Emery?
TSF: I wouldn’t say I am pro-Emery, but I’m definitely not in the #EmeryOut camp. He has struggled at Arsenal, but I’d prefer to give it a little more time. If Tierney and Hector Bellerin can get into form, plus Rob Holding potentially pushing for a starting CB role again, the defense should improve.
You’d expect Pepe to begin to deliver on his price tag. If things stay on the same track I’d expect Emery exit this summer. If Arsenal is 10+ points off 4th place come Christmas, I think the club begins to look at Freddie Ljungberg as the interim manager to finish out the season.
SMM: How long do you see Emery being Arsenal manager for?
TSF: It will be very surprising if he is around next year. He doesn’t seem to fit well with the club, the current group of players, or the fan base. I think he is keeping the job until management determines who the next target is.
SMM: With hindsight, do you feel it was the right decision to relieve Arsene Wenger of his position as Arsenal manager?
TSF: Wenger was a legend and deserves that status in Arsenal history. But it was time for the club to move on. Emery doesn’t look like the right manager to move the club forward, but it was time for something new in North London.
SMM: On the subject of managers, what do you make of what’s been going on down the road at Tottenham?
TSF: I was shocked that Tottenham let Mauricio Pochettino after he’s transformed them into a Champions League side, and one that made the Final last year. However, I am happy to see him move on from Spurs and was joking that the only thing to make it better would be the hiring of Jose Mourinho. Then it happened. I mainly just happy that he isn’t coming to Arsenal. But I look forward to the impending disaster that his appointment turns into.
SMM: What is this Arsenal side missing from a player perspective?
TSF: If everyone is healthy and in form, the team isn’t missing much - with the right manager. That’s a lot of conditions. We have quality forwards, Ozil, options at midfield, an exciting winger in Pepe, talented fullbacks, etc. Eventually, Sokratis will move on, and David Luiz likely isn’t at Arsenal for more than a year or two. Ideally, Rob Holding and William Saliba are the center backs of the future. The biggest hole from a long term perspective is at the #10 once Ozil exits the club.
SMM: So you don’t think you need to bring in any players during the January transfer window?
TSF: I don’t think the club needs to add players in the January window unless there are massive injuries between now and then. Between the known quantities we have and the academy talent moving up, Arsenal has enough options for this season. Instead, management needs to decide if Emery can show enough by that point that the team can become a serious top-four contender.
SMM: If you could sign any Southampton player, who would it be?
TSF: James Ward-Prowse seems like an obvious fit at Arsenal, especially during the Wenger years. However, I’d pick Jannik Vestergaard. Ultimately, Sokratis, Luiz, and Mustafi are on their way out either this summer or next. Vestergaard might pair nicely with Saliba and Holding. SMM: What is the expected Arsenal starting XI for Saturday?
SMM: For the non-Arsenal fan, could you please explain the Granit Xhaka situation from your perspective?
TSF: Some will say the Arsenal captain’s armband is cursed. Instead, what you had was year-after-year of decline at the end of the Wenger-era, followed by a lackluster under Emery thus far. Xhaka hasn’t had a great year at the club level, but as captain, he received a lot of the focus. Plus, Emery kept picking Xhaka even when it was evident that his form had dipped.
However, a subset of fans took to abusing him online and then cheering in the stands when he would be subbed off. He didn’t deserve that, but neither should he have reacted the way he did - during the middle of a match Arsenal were struggling through. It’s a messy situation, but it appears as though Xhaka may yet return to the fold soon.
SMM: Where do you think Arsenal will finish come the end of the season?
TSF: 5th or 6th based on the current situation. Liverpool, Manchester City, and Chelsea look locked in for top spots. So it comes down to which of the struggling ‘powers’ can regain form and how to the middle of the table teams perform down the stretch.
SMM: How do you expect Arsenal to line up on Saturday?
TSF: 4-2-3-1. Leno. Tierney-Luiz-Sokratis-Bellerin. Torreira-Guendouzi. Aubameyang-Ozil-Pepe. Lacazette.
SMM: Finally, what’s your score prediction for Arsenal - Southampton?
TSF: 2-1. Arsenal has enough attacking threat that they should be able to put away a few goals. But defensive are always liable for a slip-up or easy give away on a set-piece.