Arsenal return to Premier League action this Saturday as the Gunners host Southampton. The Saints travel to the Emirates sitting in 19th position and a -18 goal difference. That would appear to be a great opportunity for Unai Emery and Arsenal to turn their league campaign around. However, as evidence has shown us this season, nothing comes easy for the Arsenal.
To get an idea of how things are going at Southampton, what happened since their near breakthrough into the Champions League positions, and a prediction for Saturday, we spoke with Jake Hughes from SB Nation’s St. Mary’s Musings.
You can find my interview with St. Mary’s Musings - here. In it we discuss all things Arsenal, including Emery, Xhaka, which Saints player I’d pick and a prediction for Saturday.
TSF: After finishing 6th in the 2015-16 season, it’s been a downward slope for Southampton finishing 17th and 16th the past two seasons. What has transpired at a club level that has seen the results dip so significantly?
SMM: The season Southampton finished 6th, Leicester City won the league. In fact, Saints finished above Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool and were only three points off a Champions League place. Southampton are a similar-sized club to Leicester, but the ambitions of their then-owner and his family who have taken over the reins are so much more ambitious than the people at Southampton’s board level.
We had some success in selling on players and bringing in better replacements for less money, before the cycle repeats again. As an example, when Adam Lallana left for Liverpool in 2014, Saints signed Sadio Mane and Dusan Tadic in his place. When Liverpool bought Dejan Lovren off us in the same summer, Southampton signed Virgil van Dijk in his place. Neither Mane or van Dijk resisted Liverpool’s charms in the end, and we made a lot of money off those sales. Basically, Southampton have not been able to keep their best assets or replace them with better alternatives like they did in the mid-2010s.
Southampton is now really struggling to sell on some of these expensive duds. Wesley Hoedt, who was signed as a direct replacement for van Dijk, is currently out on loan in Belgium because we can’t find a buyer. Because of these poor signings, Saints need to sell before they buy. But no one wants to buy these players because they’re not very good.
There’s also the fact our manager Ronald Koeman exited the club for Everton after the 15/16 season. Like with poor transfer decisions, we made a string of terrible managerial appointments which has left us in this current Groundhog Day state of constantly fighting relegation battles. I’m hoping Ralph Hasenhuttl is the man to pull us out of this mess.
So, in short, after 2015-16, Mane left. Our manager Koeman left. Graziano Pelle, one of our main goalscorers, left. Van Dijk left not long after. Saints have not managed to recapture that magic which saw them bring in so many good players well below their true value and we’re now left with a bloated squad of terrible, overpaid players. It’s not a good spot to be in.
TSF: The start of this campaign has been rough, to say the least. However, thinking back to the summer, what were the expectations for the club heading into the new season?
SMM: My personal expectations - or wants - for the season was just to be well clear of relegation. Most sane Southampton fans would have seen that the club hadn’t addressed many of the clear deficiencies of the squad during the summer transfer window, but expectations were still relatively optimistic in relative terms.
Since our days in League One, Saints enjoyed a run of seasons which saw the club constantly improve on their position from last season’s finish until the 2015-16 season. I just wanted to see Saints finish above 16th this season, which I guess is still achievable, but it’s not looking good at present. Unfortunately, Southampton has statistically had the worst run of games to open this year’s Premier League season and it’s clear to see. I just hope the confidence of our team hasn’t been totally drained from such a terrible start to the season.
TSF: Currently, the club sits in 19th position on eight points - just one above Norwich City. With only one point in their last five league matches, how can the Saints begin to turn their season around?
SMM: It’s unlikely to happen, but the higher ups at Southampton HAVE TO give Ralph Hasenhuttl some money to play with in January. His teams play a very particular style of football - fast, aggressive, attacking, pressing - but Saints do not have the kind of players to facilitate Hasenhuttl’s preferred tactics. At the moment, this beleaguered Saints squad is a mess. The team needs investment and fast. January isn’t always the best time to buy players, but I can’t see Southampton escaping relegation again unless some changes are made.
TSF: Will manager Ralph Hasenhuttl survive until New Year’s Day?
SMM: After seeing Mauricio Pochettino - another former Saint - get the axe at Tottenham this week following the fantastic job he did, who knows?! I certainly hope Hasenhuttl gets the time to try and turn things around. In fact, I don’t think he should be sacked at all - even if Southampton get relegated. Hasenhuttl has a great track record, but hasn’t yet had the backing from the Southampton board. Given the state we find our club in at present, we’re lucky to have a manager of his caliber, in my opinion.
TSF: Southampton has a history of developing great young talents, with James Ward-Prowse probably being the most known Saint youngster at the moment. Who is an emerging player that might be under the radar for the causal Premier League viewer?
SMM: Of all the current Saints youngsters, I think Callum Slattery is the one who could be most promising. He’s a central midfielder who has already had some first-team minutes under Hasenhuttl, and I hope we actually get to see more of him to try and change things up a bit in our stale midfield. In fact, Arsenal have sniffed around Slattery plenty when he was in his early teens while playing on Southampton’s youth teams.
TSF: Danny Ings was the club’s big summer signing at £20 million. As the Saints top goal scorer (5 of the team’s 11 in the Premier League), how crucial has his acquisition been to this side?
SMM: Given the amount of goals he has scored, clearly Ings was a very important signing. I was actually reluctant about the fee we paid for Ings, bearing in mind we had him on loan last season - where he didn’t look at his best, but that’s probably more due to the team falling apart around him - and his record of injuries. However, Ings is one of the few bright lights of this Saints team this season. He’s also a Southampton fan which is nice.
TSF: The transfer rumor mill has linked Southampton with New York Red Bulls and US Men’s National Team center back Aaron Long. How much validity do you put in that link and could the team use a new CB option?
SMM: I have no idea about the validity of making such a signing, but any Southampton fan would welcome new blood in Southampton’s defence. I used to avidly follow MLS (Toronto FC for my sins), but I don’t know much about Long. From what I’ve read, it looks like a positive step if it were to happen. Since Hasenhuttl, a former RB Leipzig manager, has joined Southampton, there seems to be a growing link between the club and Red Bull teams. Saints winger Josh Sims has just spent a stint on loan with NYRB so perhaps there is something to it.
TSF: Can the Saints avoid relegation this season? Or what do they need in the January window to give the team a chance at survival?
SMM: Southampton need to address multiple areas of this current squad. Saints are weak and slow in midfield. At the back, we’re incompetent and slow. We need reinforcements in those two areas in particular - central midfield and defense - and it would be nice to have some more squad depth in the wide positions.
TSF: Give us your predicted starting XI for this weekend’s match and the formation Arsenal fans can expect to see Southampton deploy.
SMM: Honestly, it’s hard to predict what Saints side will appear against Arsenal on Saturday as Hasenhuttl has changed his system plenty of times this season already. I think it will be a 5-3-1-1. GK: Alex McCarthy, DEF: Ryan Bertrand (LWB), Jannik Vestergaard, Jack Stepehens, Jan Bednarek (CB), Cedric (RWB), MID: Oriol Romeu, Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg, James Ward-Prowse (CM), ATT: Nathan Redmond in behind Danny Ings up top.
TSF: Scoreline prediction?
SMM: I hate giving predictions, because I feel like I jinx Southampton either way. Therefore, I’ll go for a draw. We’re actually at the point where we need to start winning games - even against Arsenal - but I’d happily take a point off your hands. It’s supposedly one of the better times to face Arsenal, but I’d argue Saints are the perfect opponent for Unai Emery’s Arsenal to kick-start their season. Let’s hope that isn’t the case.
Thanks to Jake and St. Mary’s Musings for answering our questions.