I believe that the top seven places in the Premier League are already reserved for the two Manchester clubs, the two Merseyside teams, and the London trio of Tottenham, Chelsea, and Arsenal. I’d love to be proved wrong but I’d get short odds from a bookmaker on those teams to finish at the top, even though the exact order that they will finish in is not cut and dried.
Southampton are the current “champions of the second tier of teams in the Premier League” after their eighth place finish last season, although the competition for this “honour” is a close run thing. They only finished a point ahead of ourselves (11th), and only six points separated 8th from 17th. I anticipate a similar close contest this time around.
In many ways the recent fortunes of Southampton are fairly similar to our own, although they have slightly the upper hand when it comes to league positions. We were both promoted to the top tier in 2011-12; they just pipped us for the second automatic place by two points, and it was the two games that we played each other that proved to be the difference. A 0-1 reverse at St. Mary’s in October 2011 was followed by a 1-1 draw in a controversial game at Upton Park on Valentine’s Day in 2012. Their four points to our one was essentially why they went up automatically, although with the benefit of hindsight, I wouldn’t have wanted to miss that great day at Wembley in May 2012 when we beat Blackpool in the play-off final.
In the first season back in the Premier League (2012-13) we finished a creditable tenth, with five more points that Southampton who were 14th. The following year our placings were reversed with the Saints 8th, 16 points ahead of ourselves in 13th. In 2014-15 the gap was 13 points with their seventh placed finish five places in front of us (12th). We both had excellent seasons in 2015-16; we were pleased to finish in seventh place in what in many ways (although not finishing position) many consider was our best ever season in the Premier League, but once again they were slightly above us by one position (6th) and one point. And one point (and three places) was their slender advantage over us last season.
In our two most recent games we shared the spoils, with a comprehensive Southampton victory (3-0) at the London Stadium just a fortnight after we had thrown away a two goal advantage in the home game against Watford last September, the catalysts for early season discontent which saw us sitting in a relegation place at the time. But by the time we met them in the reverse fixture at their place early in February this year, our fortunes had picked up considerably, and the three goals from Carroll, Obiang and Noble in a 3-1 win pushed us up to 9th place in the table. In a season where we only managed to score three or more goals in a league game on four occasions, we were in a hot streak (by our standards) at this time, scoring three goals for the third time in just three weeks. I try to forget though, that just three days before our victory at St Mary’s, Manchester City hammered us 4-0 at the London Stadium.
Head-to-head in the last six seasons (the Championship promotion year, and the five seasons since), we are very even with four wins, four draws and four defeats, with 15 goals scored to their 14. One interesting feature of this period is that Andy Carroll has scored in three of those games, although he is not yet ready to return to action, but Mark Noble has done even better. He has scored in four of the games (five goals in total), which must make our opponents one of his favourite teams to play against.
Our injury list has only reduced slightly with the return of Michail Antonio, although Sakho appears to have remained OK after his substitute appearance last weekend. Carroll, Kouyate, and Lanzini are all apparently close to a return but not quite close enough. Based upon last week’s performance, and the principle of horses for courses, as well as the need to recognise that Hernandez needs a partner to be at his best, I would expect our manager to name the following line-up for this game:
Zabaleta, Reid, Ogbonna, Cresswell,
Antonio, Noble, Obiang, Arnautovic,
My main concerns, which are not new, are the possibility of being over-run in midfield, giving the ball away cheaply too often, the lack of pace at the back, and our slow build-up play. The manager may opt for Ayew (although I don’t know why), and Rice would be unlucky not to be called up based upon his excellent cameo at Old Trafford. Fernandes remains a good young prospect, but like Masuaku, both had poor games last weekend and may find themselves on the bench. Perhaps Sakho is not yet ready for a start, and either Antonio or Arnautavic might be pushed forward to partner Hernandez, which might give us the opportunity to bolster the midfield. Hopefully, all the players will be aware of the imminent return of Carroll, Lanzini, and Kouyate, and put in performances worthy of the shirt.
I’ll predict a draw, but hope that I am wrong and we sneak a victory. Perhaps Mark Noble will add to his goal tally against Southampton? Let us hope for an improved performance, and that we are not still at the foot of the table after this round of matches.