High-flying Southampton pose a real threat, warns former Arsenal winger
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Back in June, when the Premier League fixtures computer threw up Arsenal versus Southampton this Saturday, few would have expected it to be a top-of-the-table clash.
But in-form Saints, with three players in the England senior squad and three more banging on the door, arrive at Emirates Stadium as the surprise package of the season under Mauricio Pochettino.
Currently lying in third place with just one defeat in 11 games, Southampton will be confident they can win, particularly after drawing at Manchester United and beating Liverpool on their own pitch.
And former Arsenal and Southampton winger Perry Groves says this is a “massive” test for the Gunners as they look to bounce back from that limp defeat at Old Trafford two weeks ago.
“It’ll be like counting the planes coming back on an aircraft carrier for Arsene Wenger this week – after the international break you just hope all your players come back injury-free,” says Groves.
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“And they need their best players – Saints are playing well and can cause an upset. Psychologically – after the defeat to United – this is a massive game for Arsenal.
“We were poor in the first half, improved in the second half – but with no cutting edge – and were left disappointed. Now we need to step up and get three points.”
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Groves admits he has been hugely impressed with the south coast club’s rise and rise under the guidance of their Argentine manager.
“Under Nigel Adkins they were very solid and defended deeper – and many thought he was desperately unlucky to be sacked last season – but under Pochettino they have moved on a level,” he says.
“They will come to the Emirates thinking they can win – and why not? It must be 30 years since Southampton’s players and fans travelled to Arsenal with a genuine belief they can do that.”
Groves moved to the Saints from Arsenal in 1992 but only played 15 times in two seasons before being forced to retire through injury at the age of 28.
And he says the current Southampton side has similarities to the Arsenal team he left 21 years ago.
“At Arsenal we defended from the front, pressuring their defenders and closing down the opposition all over the pitch,” he explains.
“Southampton do a very similar job – they defend higher up the pitch and are very compact. Defensively they have a very good record too.
“Pochettino is also very clever because it is tough physically on his players so he rotates the front three and the midfield when he can. So far it has worked very, very well and I consider them a danger.”
Back at the Emirates, Groves believes fans are finally seeing glimpses of Jack Wilshere’s true form after another injury-interrupted campaign.
“We saw some of it at Old Trafford. He came on for the final 25 minutes or so and, for me, looked sharper and more together,” he says.
“But for him to be truly effective he has to play in the middle, in the holding role. Stick him on the left of the midfield three and he is not as effective.
“I hope he starts on Saturday because he can have a decisive effect for Arsenal.”
And despite the time he spent at The Dell, Groves will only be rooting for one team this weekend.
“I’ll be at the Emirates on Saturday and cannot wait – obviously I will be supporting Arsenal,” he confirms. “They’re my club and always will be.
“I didn’t have a great time down at Southampton, due to injury, and although I like watching them these days I can’t say I have any affinity or affection for them.
“That said, they will be tough opponents – I’ll go for Arsenal to just sneak it, 2-1.”