After what was, for the most part, yet another anxious transfer window, Arsenal’s supporters now find themselves in a curious position. Without any undue fuss, Arsene Wenger has pumped nearly £100m into their team, strengthening the defence, the midfield and the attack. He cannot be accused of parsimony, nor can he be accused of complacency. Even a Tottenham fan would grudgingly admit that Arsenal’s squad is now in better shape than it was last season. And yet confidence is such a fragile thing in North London. If the Gunners lose to Southampton on Saturday, expect renewed tantrums. But if they win, perhaps there might even be whispered talk of the title. So what are they up against?

Southampton are, once again, under new management. Claude Puel, once of Lyon and more recently of Nice, is their fourth boss in just over three and half years. However, thanks to the steady hand of Les Reed in the de facto ‘director of football’ role, they’ve absorbed all the shock waves of transition and have continued the transformation from third flight mediocrity to the very model of a very modern football club. But Puel has made a few changes. 

Under Koeman, Southampton tended to play some variant of a 4-2-3-1, though he was not averse to a back three if he thought it would pay dividends. Puel, thus far at least, prefers a diamond formation. He’s also decided that Nathan Redmond, the tricksy but inconsistent former Norwich winger, has something of the Thierry Henry about him and can be converted into a striker. On the evidence of his performance against Sunderland last week, there’s some work to be done on that front. But that’s to be expected. 

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Redmond doesn’t operate as a traditional centre-forward, though with one successful first half header he demonstrated a hitherto undiscovered ability to be an aerial option in the final third. But that may have been a fluke. Instead, Redmond frequently peeled away from the defenders and dropped deep, where he might have more of a chance of picking up the ball and going on a run. Ostensibly the number ten, Dusan Tadic regularly pushed up ahead of Redmond. But Norwich supporters would have recognised the old Redmond with 22 minutes to go when he galloped up the pitch, completely ignored two team mates and gently scuffed a low shot into the grateful hands of Jordan Pickford. 

The midfield diamond is one aspect of Puel’s management that hasn’t met with universal approval from the Saints fans. As always with this shape, the decision to push everyone into the middle can leave the full backs vulnerable and it took just over twenty minutes for Sunderland to conclude that their best chance of success was to push the ball quickly down the flanks, more often than not on Saints’ left side. That’s where Javi Manquillo and Fabio Borini felt they might find some space and some joy against Matthew Targett. But in the end, their only goal came from the penalty spot.

Of all the three central midfielders (Tadic was too high up to be considered anything more than the sharpest tip of the diamond), Steven Davis stood out for the accuracy and ambition of his passing. Southampton are a side that likes to play crisp, ground level, forward passes and they certainly have the players in their ranks to pull it off. Oriel Romeu and Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg are both accomplished distributors, but it was to Davis that Southampton usually looked to start their moves.  Unfortunately, converting those moves into goals seemed to be something of a problem. 

At the back however, Virgil van Dijk continues to dominate in the air. Though you’d expect that when fun-sized Defoe is the only striker. Nevertheless, he is making a mockery of those of us who felt that looking good in Scotland was far from a reliable indicator that he would look good in England. Still only 25, he looks very good indeed. If it’s Olivier Giroud who is chosen to lead the line for Arsenal, he will be in for a difficult day. 

Fullbacks Targett and Soares are always keen to push forward, another reason why the diamond shape can be vulnerable and Arsenal should beware if they take a narrow lead into the closing stages. Chasing the game after Defoe’s spot-kick, Southampton piled on the pressure in great numbers. Targett and Soares took up advanced positions, leaving Sunderland desperately trying to cope with three sets of fresh legs: the tenacity of Shane Long; the incision of James Ward-Prowse and the steely will of the recovering Jay Rodriguez. It was on this final count that the Black Cats were found wanting. Poor Pickford, who had impressed all afternoon, allowed Rodriguez’s late shot to squeeze under him and Southampton saved a point, the minimum their performance deserved. 

Arsenal fans will look at their expensive new players and Southampton’s failure to win any of their first three games, and they’ll conclude that three points are there for the taking. And frankly, so they  should. But the Saints are still finding their feet under Puel. Soon, they’ll adjust to their new players and their new shape. Arsenal fans will hope that adjustment will take a little longer yet. 

Iain Macintosh
Is a football writer for ESPNFC and the editor of  The Set Pieces