Sam Tighe looks ahead to another meeting between Southampton and Arsenal at St Mary's – this time in the Premier League – in the latest edition of Tactical Watch, in association with Sportsbet.io.
To call Arsenal a familiar opponent ahead of Tuesday’s match would be understating things a little. This is the third time Southampton will play them in the space of six weeks, with the last meeting coming in the club’s most recent game – a 1-0 FA Cup victory on Saturday.
Normally that would mean the two sides are incredibly well versed on each other’s style, strengths and weaknesses, but with the Gunners that’s not necessarily the case.
We’ll see a different XI to the rotated one fielded in the cup – something much closer to the one that’s won four of its last five Premier League games – and they’ll pose a different set of threats to the two Arsenal sides already faced this term.
Here are the three keys to beating Mikel Arteta’s men for the second time in four days.
Contain the fluid five
Saturday’s FA Cup bout between these two sides made something very clear: the good performances Arsenal produced in the lead up to it cannot be replicated with a rotated cast.
Arteta spent the second half subbing the men who have made Arsenal so fluid lately onto the pitch, turning to Thomas Partey, Bukayo Saka and Alexandre Lacazette to try and change the tide of the game.
These three, plus Emile Smith Rowe and Kieran Tierney, are the five players who are really making the Gunners tick right now. They play quick give-and-go football, move freely across the pitch and make Arsenal difficult to hold at bay. Without them they’re slower, less imaginative and easier to contain.
We didn’t see them in full flow on Saturday, but it’s fair to expect them to look a lot more like themselves on Tuesday.
Lacazette’s influence on the passing game, Partey’s progressive passing from deep, Smith Rowe drifting across the park and into pockets of space, and both Saka and Tierney using their left feet from either flank to good effect all things to be wary of defensively.
Contain the fluid formation
Arsenal have moved away from the 3-4-3 formation we’d come to expect from them, reverting to the 4-2-3-1 shape that Arteta actually started with when he took charge just over a year ago.
It’s sparked a good run of form and feels fresh and different – but while the two shapes are numerically different, the movements of the players mean they aren’t as dissimilar as you’d think.
Arsenal no longer start three centre-backs, but Arteta asks Granit Xhaka to drop into the left-centre-back role frequently during build-up play, so the system frequently reflects a back three while on the ball still.
Saka dips inside from the right wing, Smith Rowe floats around to find space and Lacazette drops deep, giving the Gunners great presence between the lines. Partey and Xhaka both have multiple options to pass into feet, plus the threat of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang or Gabriel Martinelli over the top.
A ball into Saka on the half-turn can instigate quick central attacks, while lofted passes to the wings from Partey can spark wide overloads. There is no longer one single route to goal for Arsenal, making them a more diverse offensive threat.
After a successful adaption period, Ibrahima Diallo is starting to show why Saints were delighted to sign him last summer.
The energy and work rate he’s shown have been fantastic, while his recovery abilities and speed have been downright miraculous at times. A diminutive box-to-box figure who relies on timing his interventions perfectly, stylistic comparisons to N’Golo Kanté don’t feel too far off the mark.
He figures to be crucial to Southampton’s chances of success again here. Any team who lets Partey lift his head and pick out passes will be punished, so Diallo’s relentless energy and glue-like coverage will be needed to disrupt Arsenal’s rhythm and to protect Saints' right side from frequent balls over the top.
He and James Ward-Prowse can also find joy with quick passes into the forwards – especially if Xhaka is moving between defensive and midfield lines and can be caught out of position.