The make-or-break action keeps coming for Arsenal this week as they face a trip to the south coast to take on Southampton tonight (Wednesday).
The Gunners cannot afford to drop a single point in their remaining four games this season so the onus will be on them to come out firing as they bid to usurp Manchester City or Liverpool in the Premier League’s top four.
Despite having only played on Sunday against Manchester United, the Gunners will have to raise themselves for the challenge of getting past a typically obstinate Southampton side, while leaving enough in the tank for the trip to Stoke on Saturday.
In truth, however, they can’t really afford to look beyond the next 90 minutes as only three points will truly keep the pressure on the teams above them, however unlikely a late tilt at the top four may be.
Arsene Wenger may yet look to shuffle his pack, particularly as both Laurent Koscielney and Granit Xhaka picked up knocks in the weekend’s 2-0 win over United, though the Frenchman has been loathed to tinker too much with a winning formula this season – as rare as that has seemed.
Frankly, if the same XI who picked up the win over United are available, I’d be tempted to start with them again, in the hope that they can do the business early enough to allow changes to be made late on.
There will be a few tired legs among the squad at this stage of the season but, at the same time, the Gunners haven’t exactly faced a burdensome fixture pile-up these last few months, and players have been coming in and out of the side with regularity.
You would hope that there is enough fight and fire left in the team to allow them to give this four-match run-in everything they have, especially as they have the beginnings of a successful set up taking hold in the shape of the 3-4-3.
The formation has yielded three wins from the last four Premier League matches, as well as FA Cup success, so it is almost certain to make a reappearance again at St Mary’s, though the Gunners will need to be a lot sharper going forward if they hope to find a way past a defence that has conceded 44 goals this season, just two more than our own.
When the Gunners travelled to St Mary’s earlier in the year, they thrashed a reserve side 5-0 in an emphatic display of attacking football, and they will need more of the same this time around. They certainly won’t have things all their own way tonight though, as Claude Puel – the Saints boss – will field as strong a squad as he possibly can.
Though there is little at stake for the hosts, they will be able to enjoy a pressure-free tilt at the Gunners, allowing them to take the sorts of risks they would normally avoid in typical circumstances.
While carelessness and complacency is not an option for Wenger’s men, they will need to force the pace in order to get the required result, and that carries with it its own risks.
It is crucial that they don’t expose themselves in the same way as they did in defeats at West Bromwich and Crystal Palace, however, there won’t be many fans who begrudge them throwing a few extra bodies forward in search of a breakthrough.
Strangely, I find myself much less optimistic regarding this match than I was ahead of the Manchester United clash. I can’t say that I am particularly confident of success, but I certainly wouldn’t rule out a convincing victory either.
Like us of late, Southampton are something of an unknown quantity, holding Liverpool one week, before being spanked by West Ham the next. An area they have struggled this season has been in front of goal (cue a Shane Long hat-trick), with just 39 goals scored – the fewest of any team in the top half of the table.
Even though we have shown signs of revival in the last month, there remains a definite unpredictability about this Arsenal side, making it impossible to foresee how they might play until about 15 minutes into any given match.
If one thing remains in their favour is that they can take the view that they don’t have much to lose. They aren’t in the driving seat in the race for the top four so they can play with a little less pressure than the likes of City of Liverpool, who both know how costly a single dropped point could be.
St Mary’s might not have been the happiest of hunting grounds for Arsenal in recent years, but, as Jose Mourinho now knows, bad runs are made to be broken and hoodoos destined to be ended. If ever there was a time to turn this particular bad run around, it is now. Come on you Gunners!