There is no way around it. It’s been a brutal week for Arsenal. Two straight losses have seen the Gunners hold on to fourth place slip away and now trail their rivals by three points. Injuries to Kieran Tierney, Takehiro Tomiyasu, and Thomas Partey, all three are key pieces and nearly unreplaceable for Arsenal. Full disclosure travel prevented me from seeing the entirety of the Brighton match and most of the Crystal Palace loss. I’ll be watching this Saturday so fingers crossed the dip in form turns around. Now onto this weekend’s opponent.
Earlier this season Southampton was on a great run, which started with a 1-1 draw with Manchester City. That was followed by an FA Cup win, 3-2 over Spurs in the league, a point against Manchester United, a pair of 2-0 league wins, and then a big FA Cup result over West Ham to reach the quarterfinals. Since then it’s been a U-turn in form and results as the Saints have slipped to 14th in the table and are coming off a massive 6-0 loss to Chelsea. They need a result and will be hoping to find it against a recently struggling Arsenal coming to town.
TSF: After a comfortable mid-table position the Saints have endured a tough stretch lately. It’s been just 1 point and 15 goals conceded in their last five Premier League matches. What have been the primary factors in this recent downturn?
SMM: Southampton has certainly been the masters of their own downfall the last few weeks, particularly from a defensive standpoint. I’m surprised we’ve only conceded 15 goals in our last five matches to be quite frank. We make crucial and avoidable mistakes at the back — something we certainly didn’t do when we found a bit of form — and it doesn’t matter who we play, these teams will punish us. It doesn’t take much for us to be pulled out of position before one or two passes put us on the back foot and then we’re asking too much of our goalkeeper.
TSF: They’ve almost mathematically locked up their safety this season, but where do you believe Southampton will finish in the table?
SMM: I think right around where we’re currently at. We’ve got a few tricky fixtures against teams with tonnes to play for, beginning with Arsenal, and realistically I see us maybe picking up a point(s) against Brighton, Crystal Palace or Brentford. It all depends how up for it we are.
Then we’ve got to go to Turf Moor where Burnley are fighting for something — albeit objectively. They had such a bad weekend with Everton winning and then losing themselves to Norwich City. … It’ll be interesting to see where the title race stands when we face Liverpool.
TSF: Give us an update on Armando Broja, who leads the team with nine goals. Will Southampton be able to sign him on a permanent deal over the summer, get another loan from Chelsea, or is the expectation that he has a new home next season?
SMM: I would be surprised if Broja is at St Mary’s next season. Though I would love to see him back! I think he’ll either be back at Chelsea or they will cash in on his value. If it reaches upwards of £60-million, which I’ve seen floated about, then there’s no way he comes back. Broja certainly has the talent to go to another club in England, Spain or Germany and with the right players around him, he could be even more impactful than he’s been at Saints. We’re just so inconsistent at providing him — and Che Adams — support that I don’t think he’s even touched his full potential. We’ve seen flashes of his brilliance, but there’s another level he can reach.
TSF: James Ward-Prowse has been magically once again this season. Eight goals and seven assists. He has a deal until 2026, but now at 27, do you think he pushes for a big move finally or is he committed to Southampton for the foreseeable future?
SMM: I think Ward-Prowse is committed to Saints. It doesn’t seem like he’s ever gone to the board pushing for a move away. At the end of the day he’s a Premier League captain that plays every minute of every match. We know his value from dead ball situations, but he’s grown in so many other ways. He’s got a bite to his game that gets under the skin of opponents and it’s been fun to watch him develop into an all around midfielder.
TSF: Southampton seems to have one match a season where they get the doors blown off them. Why do you think that tends to happen and why did it have to be the week before playing Arsenal, so they are super motivated to bounce back?
SMM: I think our play is risky — if we concede a few early goals or fall behind by two or three then our heads drop and it doesn’t take much to then let us two or three more goals. It’s a classic “response game” but I struggle to see anything happening other than maybe a few positives being taken out of it. Arsenal has too much to play for with regards to Champions League football. You need this more than us.
TSF: Looking ahead to the summer, what are Southampton’s top priorities in the transfer market?
SMM: Likely we will need another forward to play up top with Che Adams. I think Adam Armstrong is still a raw product who could do with a spell away on loan somewhere to get his confidence back up. Granted, we were patient with Adams, but they’re similar players in what they offer. Adams has built a great little partnership with Broja because they have a bit of yin and yang in what they offer.
We definitely need to sort out our goalkeeping situation. Alex McCarthy is currently the only one under contract next season with Harry Lewis and Fraser Forster both reportedly set to move on. I think Forster could potentially find himself back in the fold if he takes a massive paycut, but he’s shown a bit of value since taking over in goal for the injured McCarthy.
The last thing is to figure out who partners Salisu in defence. Jan Bednarek has had hot and cold season whilst Jack Stephens is our only other option. I don’t have faith in either. Dynel Simeu has had a strong season on loan at Carlisle United and could find himself at least factoring into the conversation of being around the Saints first team squad.
TSF: When we spoke back in December you mentioned the fan base was split, but you were still in support of Ralph Hasenhüttl. Where do the fans stand at the moment and what are the odds the club management makes a change this summer?
SMM: When I last spoke to Jake, he was still in favour of Hasenhuttl based on the fact that we won’t find better at least to keep us where we are at. I’m fairly indifferent whilst the fanbase is definitely still split. If he goes, he goes, and we pick ourselves up with whoever comes in. If he stays, then our fans have to understand with Hasenhuttl here’s what you get: When things go the right direction, they’re great, when things go the wrong direction, it’ll be as bad as it can get. There’s no middle ground. The one thing really keeping him tied to Saints is the club has invested so heavily into his philosophy from the youth ranks right up to through the first team. I don’t think we can afford to change that philosophy from a financial standpoint.
TSF: Who is the breakthrough player of the season at Southampton? And which player is the most underrated?
SMM: Can Kyle Walker-Peters have a second breakthrough season? A lot can be said about Tino Livramento’s rise on the right — he initially displaced Walker-Peters from the side — but then Walker-Peters came in and had a few strong performances where you couldn’t take him out of the side whilst you wanted to maximise the form Livramento was in. With a thin left back rank, Walker-Peters shifted out to the left side and has been incredible in developing over there. For me, he’s been close to a Club Player of the Season. He’s a smart player who not only can pick out a pass going forward or make a run with the ball, but he’s a savvy defender.
I also think Forster was considered underrated until he took over in goal for the injured McCarthy. Fans were always hoping he’d rediscover his form at the club, and he’s given the high ups something to think about going into the offseason. Without him we would lose every game 9-0! He’s under immense pressure every game and has again become a proven shot stopper, which we’ve seen be rewarded with a call up back into the England squad.
TSF: What formation should Arsenal expect Southampton to use in this match and who is in your predicted starting XI?
SMM: We’ll definitely stick with a 4-4-2. I don’t think we have enough defensive depth for three at the back. He’s used Yan Valery but it’s such a gamble and he’s only done it a handful of times out of necessity.
My predicted IX is week-in, week-out starters in a 4-4-2: Forster; Walker-Peters, Salisu, Bednarek, Livramento; Romeu, Ward-Prowse, S. Armstrong, Elyounoussi; Broja, Adams
TSF: And finally, give us your prediction for how the match will go.
SMM: I think Arsenal wins 3-1 and I think it is a comfortable scoreline.
Thanks to Allen and St. Mary’s Musings.