Arsène is doing his bit for your dividend as well, reaching for the paracetamol to solve his selection headache for the visit to Southampton. Not because he is spoiled for choice by any stretch of the imagination but this was always the trickier of the two festive away fixtures. Southampton are a better team than West Ham and improving, as their league position shows.
For once, it isn’t defence that is the major issue. Olivier Giroud’s suspension continues to wreak havoc with the front line. Yaya Sanogo is injured – hardly surprising news in itself – as is Lukas Podolski, which means Wenger is left hoping Welbeck’s thigh injury is sufficiently repairable for him to be picked.
If not, Alexis leads the line and that hasn’t been a resounding success previously. Maybe Southampton’s footballing pedigree rather than a physical approach offers the sense that it might work this time around. Is it any more of a risky decision that putting Akpom into the starting line-up?
Podolski is the subject of a ridiculed bid from Internazionale. An unusual negotiating technique from Arsène to proclaim the Italians as paupers in attempt to drag what the club considers an acceptable bid for a player who can at best be described as bit-part.
The only player it would be less surprising to see leave the club this winter is Joel Campbell who is fast becoming the forgotten man of the club. I’d forgotten about him until now and might he be the solution to Arsène’s problem today? I doubt it; Wenger made it quite clear previously that he doesn’t see the Costa Rican as a centre forward.
Yes, Welbeck will be passed fit for today and then be given a ten day rest until the visit of Stoke City to The Emirates.
Were this problem surfacing next month, another hat may be thrown into the ring with Theo Walcott physically fit according to Arsène. Mentally? That’s a different issue. Wenger spoke of the first challenge and getting past that contact is the biggest hurdle the England international faces. It’s similar to Eduardo in some respects.
The Croat was injured in a challenge far more sinister than Walcott but it is only natural with the types of injury and length of recovery period, that they should wonder how their bones and joints will fare under the physical aspect of the game. The psychological impact can be far harder to overcome than anything else.
Walcott’s return may be as a substitute today having sat on the bench in the two previous fixtures, unused as the manager pondered his defensive options. I don’t see much change in that respect today, perhaps chasing a goal might induce some adventure in his substitutions although it is far more preferable to have him think about defending a lead.
Whenever he chooses to bring back Walcott is a risk. Arsène noted the groin strain he suffered with England could have happened anywhere but definitely laid the blame firmly at the door of the national association’s management of his training routines. The inference was quite clearly that they did not monitor the player or rein him in. Fair or not, a useful exercise proved a costly lesson.
Returning to his former club makes today about as friendly a reception for Walcott as he could get outside of The Emirates. He won’t start though, that is most likely in Sunday’s cup-tie with Hull City. Indeed, of the former Southampton contingent, I would only expect Oxlade-Chamberlain to start. Chambers most likely, will be on the bench as Arsène seeks to manage Laurent Koscielny back to fitness.
The only other change, to stop the destabilising effect as Arsène put it, will be Tomas Rosicky’s return in place of Coquelin. It’s the least surprising change given the Czech’s performance during the win over QPR and offers another attacking prospect. We might need that in a match Arsenal can ill-afford to lose.
That shows Southampton’s progress and the positive impact of their point against Chelsea. Wenger praised Koeman for his work on the South Coast, for building on the work of his predecessor and capitalising on the mediocrity offered by the big clubs this season. The test will be whether he can maintain The Saints in a European place and secure himself a place in the list of potential replacements for Arsène.
I expect the starting line-up – subject to Welbeck’s fitness being proven – to be:
A point is the minimum requirement for this afternoon. Taking three points is no easy task as others have found out although both Mancunian teams have won at St Mary’s this season. Both previous meetings with Southampton have ended with tight scorelines; I wouldn’t expect anything different today.
Enjoy the match wherever you are watching it.
From The Vaults
Today’s trip down Memory Lane is from 1980, a New Year’s Day trip to The Dell.
Despite only losing two of their previous fifteen, Arsenal started the day in fourth place on goals scored, 27 to third placed Southampton’s 36. Both sides had 26 points, although had three points for a win been in place, Arsenal would have trailed their hosts by three points due to ten – yes, ten – of their twenty-three games being drawn.
Come the season’s end, there was some familiarity with Arsenal finishing fourth. However, that wasn’t good enough to get into Europe the following season which puts some perspective on that position now. The consistency is not to be knocked but in previous years, it just wasn’t good enough.