Southampton are in the midst of a poor run of results and could really do with a morale-boosting victory when they host in-form Arsenal at St Mary’s on Boxing Day (7.45pm live on BT Sport).
Saints have endured a relatively difficult first half of the season and find themselves down in 12th place on the back of just five wins in their first 17 fixtures of the campaign. They come into Saturday’s match having extended their league winless streak to five matches with a 2-0 home defeat to Tottenham Hotspur last weekend.
Southampton have been net-sellers over the last couple of years, with the likes of Adam Lallana, Calum Chambers, Dejan Lovren, Luke Shaw, Morgan Schneiderlin and Nathaniel Clyne all leaving for pastures new. Ronald Koeman did superbly well to lead them to seventh in his debut campaign last time out but results this season perhaps indicate that despite some solid replacement buys the volume of departures is starting to catch up with them.
That theory is not fully backed up by the underlying statistics, which suggest Southampton are still a solid top-eight side. While they are not as defensively sound as they were last season – partially due to the departure of loanee centre-back Toby Alderweireld, now of Tottenham Hotspur – and the difference is not entirely made up by a slight boost in attacking output, their league position can still be expected to improve from here.
Whether that improvement will arrive over the next couple of weeks remains to be seen. Koeman has been critical of his side’s packed festive schedule and it is certainly a period that will stretch a relatively thin squad to its limit. A strong 2-0 win at home to Arsenal was one of two victories in their undefeated progression through the same stretch of fixtures last season but they may have difficulties in replicating that result on Saturday.
Arsenal both maintained their two-point deficit to surprise league leaders Leicester City and opened up a four-point advantage to Manchester City in third by recording their fourth consecutive victory in all competitions with a 2-1 win over the latter side at the Emirates on Monday night. Well-taken first-half goals from Theo Walcott (pictured) and Olivier Giroud were enough to secure all three points despite a late surge from their visitors.
It was a result that reaffirmed the belief that Arsenal are capable of offering a genuine challenge for their first league title since 2004. Old frailties still remain in certain areas but in a season in which Chelsea are severely under-performing, Manchester United are struggling for consistency and City have some weaknesses of their own, they look well-placed to do so.
Monday’s victory did, indeed, see them move into pole position in the bookies’ rankings as the most likely side to lift the Premier League trophy come the end of the season. Assuming that Leicester will be unable to maintain their stellar form to date throughout the remainder of the campaign, the title is likely to come down to a straight fight between Arsenal and Man City.
The Gunners are among the best three teams in the league in terms of both goals scored (31) and conceded (14) and are starting to show a flexibility not always associated with their long-serving coach Arsene Wenger. While they are still primarily a possession-oriented side, the pace at which they move forward and the ability that gives them to be effective on the counter-attack could prove key as the title race goes on.
That is, in fact, likely to be the difference-maker for them on Boxing Day against a Southampton side who look much more vulnerable to quick transitions than they did last season. Arsenal are in very good form and are well-primed to consign their hosts to a sixth match without victory by taking all three points at St Mary’s.