Ahead of Southampton's trip to the Emirates Stadium, we spoke to Arsenal correspondent Charles Watts to find out how the Gunners are shaping up for Sunday's Premier League encounter...
How would you sum up Arsenal’s season to this point?
It’s been very disappointing, there’s no way around it. We’re sitting here in early April and it’s Europa League or bust, which says it all. They’ve been very good at home in the league, but the away form has been shocking and that’s given them far too much to do. I don’t think anyone realistically thought they’d challenge for the title, but having finished outside the top four for the first time in 20 years last season, they needed a response to get themselves back into those positions. To be 13 points adrift is not good enough, and the empty seats around the Emirates goes to show the apathy around the club at the moment.
Are the falling attendances purely down to league position, or does the relationship with the fans run deeper than that?
It’s a bit of both – it’s because nothing’s resting on the Premier League, but it’s also fans voting with their feet against Arsène Wenger. A lot of them won’t come back until he goes. They’re hoping the sight of a half-empty Emirates is the tipping point that prompts Stan Kroenke into making a change. They all know Arsène Wenger isn’t going to make that decision himself. The fans protested a lot last season outside the ground, which was easily ignored, but it’s harder to ignore an empty stadium. In over 20 years since Wenger’s arrival, they’ve always had a very full ground at Highbury and the Emirates, so this is the first time we’re seeing this. That speaks volumes for how the fans feel about the manager at the moment.
Do you see Wenger making changes for the Saints game, given it falls between the two legs of the Europa League quarter-final against CSKA?
I think so. When you look at the team he picked at the weekend against Stoke, he clearly had one eye on the first leg tonight. If Arsenal win 4-0 and kill the tie straightaway, that might make a difference, but if not you will probably see the likes of Chambers, Elneny, Welbeck and Iwobi starting. Aubameyang will play against Southampton regardless, because he can’t play in the Europa League, so I think it will be pretty similar to the team that started against Stoke.
With Mkhitaryan and Aubameyang replacing Sanchez and Giroud in January, has that made Arsenal stronger or weaker?
I think stronger – they did very well out of a bad situation. I’m not going to give them any credit for what happened with Sanchez and the way they let his contract run down, but with about a week to go in the window he was worth zero. To come out of that by getting themselves Mkhitaryan – a quality player worth in excess of £30m in today’s market – I think they’ve done very well. He was Player of the Month in March; he’s got a couple of goals and six assists already. I really liked Giroud – he offered something different – but when you look at Aubameyang, there’s no comparison. He’s had the best start of any striker Arsenal have ever had in the Premier League with five goals in his first six games. I think they had a decent January window, also getting rid of players like Walcott to free up wages, which was the start of a bigger process that will continue in the summer, headed up by new head of recruitment Sven Mislintat.
How would you assess Saints' prospects on Sunday and who do you see as Arsenal’s key men?
Aubameyang is very hard to handle. He’s quick and if he gets any sight of goal he’ll hit the target. Wenger started with Ozil at the weekend, who was poor for the first hour but then burst into life and Arsenal won the game with him at the heart of it. He’s the player who makes everyone tick. Even with everything that’s gone on this season, Arsenal are still very good at the Emirates – only Man City have a better home record in the league. I think it will be very tough for Southampton, even though most of Arsenal’s focus is on the Europa League. Stoke’s game plan worked really well for 60 minutes until Wenger brought on Lacazette, so if Southampton can frustrate Arsenal and keep it tight, they’ll have a chance. The Emirates gets very tetchy the longer the game goes on, and if Arsenal aren’t winning the fans can turn pretty quickly, so I think that’s Southampton’s best bet. If they fall behind early, I think Arsenal will win fairly comfortably.