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Arsenal at Southampton preview: a test of defensive depth

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Arsenal aim to make it 23 in a row without a loss

Arsenal v Qarabag FK - UEFA Europa League - Group E Photo by Marc Atkins/Getty Images

On paper, Arsenal have one of the more manageable league schedules heading into the dense holiday fixture list. In a perfect world, matchups against Southampton (19th), Burnley (17th), and Brighton (13th) before the beginning of the second half of the Premier League season would provide ample room for the roster to rotate, allowing starters to rest and reserve players get valuable experience

But in sports, a perfect world doesn’t really exist (unless you’re the Invincibles). While not quite crisis-level, Arsenal are in the midst of a mid-season injury problem, and the defense has born the brunt of that problem. With Rob Holding out for the season, Dinos Mavropanos still recovering from a lengthy groin injury, and Shkodran Mustafi nursing a hamstring injury, Arsenal’s defensive depth is starting to look a little thin.

Compounding the injuries is the one match suspension of starting center back Sokratis, who accrued his fifth yellow card of the season in last weekend’s match against Huddersfield. Mustafi will also serve his one match suspension for his fifth yellow as well, although his injury meant he would miss the match regardless. That means that Arsenal will be without the services of all three of their starting center backs against Southampton.

So, yeah. Not ideal.

Amidst the rash of injuries, however, is the incredibly timely inclusion of captain Laurent Koscielny. Wednesday’s Europa League snooze-fest against Qarabag saw the return of the center back to first team action after a seven-month recovery from an Achille’s rupture suffered in last year’s Europa League semifinal. The Frenchman looked comfortable in his 72 minute performance, but Qarabag, who was already out of contention for a place in the knock-out stage, didn’t put up the kind of fight a team like Southampton, who is already fighting to stay out of the relegation zone, will most likely put up.

Without many first-choice defenders available, the question ahead of the match is: how will Emery line up his defense? If the manager decides to stick with a back three, which he has deployed for the last several matches, the most logical lineup would be (from right to left) Stephan Lichtsteiner, Koscielny, and Nacho Monreal. If Emery decides for a more prudent back four, he could drop Hector Bellerin and Sead Kolasinac back to the fullback spots and place one of Lichtsteiner or Monreal next to Koscielny in the middle of the defense. However, if Koscielny is not fully match fit, the Gunners would be in quite the defensive pickle.

God help us all if we see Xhaka at left back.

In the attack, Arsenal regain Mesut Ozil after a Fortnite bender back spasms kept him out for four matches. With Aaron Ramsey also out with an injury against Huddersfield, last weekend’s match saw how badly Arsenal struggled without a creator behind the attacking tandem of Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, as the Gunners managed just two shots on goal, both coming from savior/defensive midfielder Lucas Torreira. With Ozil and Ramsey back from their respective injuries, Arsenal’s attack should be much more threatening than last weekend’s toothless affair.

Southampton, as previously mentioned, is in the middle of a dire season. With only one win under their belts (which came at the beginning of September), The Saints fired manager Mark Hughes following a draw against Manchester United at the beginning of the month. Shortly thereafter, the club announced the hiring of Austrian manager Ralph Hasenhüttl.

Formerly at RB Leipzig, Hasenhüttl has a tall task ahead of him. He has been considered one of Europe’s most promising young coaches, and a relegation battle will test him early and often. Despite being hired ahead of Southampton’s clash with Tottenham, his first official match was a 1-0 loss to Cardiff City last weekend. The home clash with Arsenal will be Hasenhüttl’s first home appearance as The Saints’ new manager.

Sitting on nine points, the hosts will be desperate for a win. Three points will take them out of the relegation zone, but only on goal differential. A loss will keep them level on points with bottom-dwellers Fulham. Over their last five matches, they have a record L-D-D-L-L, scoring five total goals while conceding nine. Danny Ings, on loan from Liverpool, is their top scorer with four goals scored for the Saints. Ings and perpetual Arsenal pest Shane Long both return from injury in-time to make the team sheet for the match.

WHAT: Arsenal at Southampton

WHEN: Sunday, December 16th, 8:30am EST/5:30am PST/1:30pm GMT

WHERE: St. Mary’s Stadium

HOW TO WATCH: NBC Sports Gold.

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