Twice. Two goals, twice. Reminiscent of last season’s loss against Tottenham in the race for fourth, these past two matches have dealt a serious blow to Arsenal’s title hopes. But on the positive side, and thanks to having played more matches, the Gunners are four points clear with just seven matches to go. They’ve exceeded expectations this year and all but clinched the top four. It is still in their control, but will now require passing their biggest test to date - a road victory against Manchester City. But first, they have to stop the slide and actually put the match away against Southampton for three points.
Southampton enters the match in 20th place and has picked up just a single point from their last five matches (a 3-3 draw against Tottenham). Outside that draw against Spurs, the Saints have only managed to score one goal in the last six games. However, given the wild balance at the bottom of the league, they are just four points away from safety. Surprisingly, four of their six wins have come on the road, and after seeing Arsenal drop points in back-to-back matches, Southampton might be feeling there is a chance to gain something at the Emirates.
For this week’s opposition Q&A, we spoke with Jacob Tanswell from The Athletic to discuss Southampton’s gradual slide down the Premier League, the relegation battle, the future of some of their key players, and Friday’s match.
TSF: Now in their 11th season in a row in the Premier League, Southampton’s survival looks in serious trouble. It seems like quite a while since the years when the club finished in the top eight for straight seasons. How much of their slow slide down the table has been due to heavy investment from other clubs, or are there other primary factors looking over the past five years?
Jacob Tanswell: Southampton have been on a downward gradual slow ever since they got into the Europa League under Ronald Koeman. The next appointment was Claude Puel who guided the team to an eighth-place finish and a Cup finale, but the general trend and the malaise that has occurred started with a series of mistakes in recruiting that following summer. They weren’t able to continuously replace players like Sadio Mane and Virgil van Dijk, which is difficult to do year after year. Ralph Hasselhutel did a great job to keep the club out of relegation and overachieving with the squad and budget he was given. This year Southampton has put in a lot more money, $130 million has been spent over the last two windows. But you get the sense that things have changed a bit too quickly and it’s accelerated their decline.
TSF: Despite just six league wins, Southampton is only four points away from safety with 21 left in play. Looking at their remaining schedule, do you see a path forward to safety?
Jacob Tanswell: It’s incredible that Southampton that only four points adrift considering the amount of points they’ve passed up, and the ‘relegation six-pointers’ they’ve given up. Nottingham Forest (home), Wolves (home), Leeds (away), & Crystal Palace (home), were tough matches but they were unable to get anything from them. So they are quite fortunate. A lot of tough matches to come, Arsenal and Newcastle. But it’s the two home games against Fulham and Bournemouth, plus the trip to Forest that are must-wins.
TSF: If the club drops to the Championship they have several of their top players on contracts that they could either use to invest in a rebuild or use to help achieve promotion next season. If relegated, do you expect the club to sell James Ward-Prowse, Kyle Walker-Peters, and/or Che Adams, or any of that trio to force a move?
Jacob Tanswell: While Southampton haven’t been a great team this year, they have a lot of good individuals, and assets for the club to work with. I think all three of those players will move on. There are also a lot of other players coming toward the end of a contract or their time with the club. It’s the right time to refresh the group. They will continue to recruit younger players, investing the money they get from those three players.
TSF: Looking past the table and results, who is a young player that has impressed you this season that perhaps supporters of other clubs who don’t watch Southampton each week might not be aware of?
Jacob Tanswell: Romeo Lavia. Southampton really suffered when he was out injured, but when available he has been one of their most influential players, despite being just 19. He’s able to receive the ball with his back to the goal and is great under pressure. There will be a lot of Premier League clubs looking to sign him away. Another shout is the defender Armel Bella Kotchap. He’s also had some missed time due to injury, but has a lot of raw potential and saw included in the World Cup squad for Germany.
TSF: Can you give us your predicted starting XI for Friday’s match as well as a final scoreline?
Jacob Tanswell: It’s difficult as the side is in a consistent state of flux, who plays, the formation, and the style of play.
Bazunu | Walker-Peters - Bella-Kotchap - Bednarek - Perraud | Ward-Prowse - Lavia | Walcott - Alcarez - Sulemana | Onuachu
3-1 defeat to Arsenal.
Thanks to Jacob for talking with us ahead of Friday’s match.