Tactical Watch: Full-backs set for intense examination

By SFC Media time Sat 22 Oct Saints vs Arsenal

Sam Tighe looks ahead to the visit of Arsenal to St Mary's on Sunday, as Southampton prepare to take on the Premier League leaders.

Arsenal arrive at St Mary’s as Premier League leaders. What’s been behind their hot start?

There’s plenty that’s gone right for Arsenal this season, but you can point to three distinct elements that have smoothed the path for them so far: a perfect pre-season campaign; consistency in terms of team selection; and tactical continuity carried over from last season, but then enhanced thanks to some great summer recruitment.

Football is so often about momentum, and Arsenal hitting that first game with a clear idea of what to do created a wave effect. They’ve also shown increased resilience to bad moments or games, while several players have improved tenfold from this time last year.

What defines their tactical style under Mikel Arteta?

Arteta cut his managerial teeth under the tutelage of Pep Guardiola at Manchester City, so it should be no surprise that there are many similarities between their styles. Arsenal, like City, are possession-heavy, attack and shoot plenty and underpin it all with slick, accurate passing.

On the ball, Martin Ødegaard and Bukayo Saka combine well down the right flank, picking their way through gaps and getting into dangerous areas. All through last season and into this season, opponents have tried to double-team Saka or box him off, but it’s rarely successful.

In transition, they look for Gabriel Martinelli’s pace in behind or 1v1; he is perhaps the most improved player at Arsenal in the last 12 months and is giving full-backs a rough ride. Linking it all together from the centre-forward role is Gabriel Jesus, who is a big team player.

What can Saints do to spoil their day?

The coaching staff can take lessons – both good and bad – from Arsenal’s recent performances in order to devise a plan.

The success Martinelli had against Trent Alexander-Arnold in the win against Liverpool showed that you need your full-backs on form against Arsenal, but it also showed that if you allow Arsenal time to pick their passes, you’re asking for trouble in those matchups.

A week later, Leeds United did an excellent job of ruffling Arsenal’s feathers; the sheer amount of energy they poured in that game – tackles, pressures and hard running everywhere – knocked the Gunners off their stride and they really struggled through that game.

Perhaps the contrast in scheduling played a part there, and perhaps it can work in Southampton’s favour as it did Leeds’. This game will be Arsenal’s seventh in October, whereas it will be Saints’ fifth, and with Arteta mixing key Premier League starters into Europa League games recently, the physical load is heavy.

So what’s key to a result here?

The full-back corps are in for an intense day. On the right it’s about 1v1 defending against Martinelli, on the left it’s about guarding against the skipping runs of Saka. If you can hold them outside the width of the penalty box and block off the middle, you stop them combining so heavily with Ødegaard.

The midfield and forwards are similarly crucial, as not only can their energy and pressing disrupt Arsenal’s deep build-up and protect the full-backs indirectly, but if they can apply Leeds-esque pressure, there’s turnovers to be had.

Expect the Gunners to have the majority of the ball, so Southampton’s best moments will likely come on the counter. Targeting Arsenal’s left, where their full-back comes central during build-up and therefore sometimes leaves a gap, could bring joy.

Predicted XI (4-3-3): Ramsdale; White, Saliba, Gabriel, Tomiyasu; Ødegaard, Partey, Xhaka; Saka, Jesus, Martinelli.

Notes:
-Arsenal’s formation switches between 4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1 fairly regularly as the attack flows
-Left-back Zinchenko may return for the weekend, having struggled for fitness since August
-Look out for the new Xhaka: a much more box-to-box, goalscoring presence than before
-Jesus’s slinking dribbles, Ramsdale’s volleyed distribution and Ødegaard’s threaded passes all represent further dangers to Saints

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