We spoke to Arsenal correspondent Charles Watts from Football London to get the inside track on this weekend’s opponents…
What’s changed under Unai Emery?
It’s mainly just the intensity that Emery has brought to the place, because it had gone really stale. There was a real divide among fans, and it was just crying out for change. They’ve brought in five new players, but a huge part of the squad is still Arsène Wenger’s squad – Emery is just getting more out of them.
Héctor Bellerín has come on massively this season, having flat lined in the last couple of years, and he is getting more out of Alex Iwobi, who had looked a player short of confidence. Granit Xhaka looks a totally different player – partly because Lucas Torreira has come in and made a huge difference.
If you look at where Arsenal are now compared to this time last season, there’s not that much difference, but Emery has brought a whole new mentality to the squad and I don’t expect them to fall away this time. The belief is back. Whether they go on and get top four, who knows, but whatever happens this season it’s certainly going to be viewed as a successful one.
Emery seems very flexible with the way he sets his team up depending on the opposition…
Absolutely, we’ve seen him go from a back four to a back three in recent weeks, but also one of the big things is he’s not afraid to make changes when he needs to.
That’s something Wenger got an awful lot of criticism for – playing players who were out of form. But in the first game of the season Emery took Aaron Ramsey off, and in the second game he took Mesut Özil off. That was a sign that no matter who you are, if you’re not playing well, you’re not going to play. That was something Wenger never did.
When Emery sees something going wrong, he’s not afraid to correct himself. They’ve made 14 changes so far before the second half – more than anyone else in the Premier League by a distance. Maybe you have to look at it and say “he’s getting things wrong from the start” but the good thing is he’s correcting himself and it’s proving to be the right decision.
Arsenal haven’t led a Premier League game at half time all season. Are they noticeably starting games slowly?
There’s no doubt they’re starting slowly, and it’s an incredible stat. The closest they came was at Bournemouth, who equalised in first-half injury time. Emery has not been able to put his finger on it yet, which is surprising because he’s a very meticulous man.
They played very well against Liverpool and Tottenham in the first half without getting a lead, but the way they’re finishing games – certainly with the changes they’re making – has caused the fans to dub them Second Half FC! It’s been like watching two different teams at times, which is something he’s got to sort out, but he is getting the maximum out of this group of players – that’s what’s really impressive about what he’s done.
What will the mood be like ahead of the game?
I’m sure they’ll be confident. Players have been in this position plenty of times before, facing a team with a new manager in charge, and I’m sure they’ll expect a response from Southampton, but the big issue for Arsenal is the problems they’ve got at centre-back.
Sokratis and Mustafi are both suspended and Koscielny hasn’t played in the Premier League yet this season, so they’re probably going to have to start with two full-backs at centre-back.
Has there been a trend following Europa League games this season?
They’ve coped very well. Emery has rotated for the Europa League games – most of the players from Thursday night are unlikely to be involved on Sunday, so fatigue and tiredness are not going to be an issue.