By Richard Clarke
The turn of the year is a time of change for most of us.
Stopping smoking, starting a fitness campaign, losing weight, finding a partner; whatever the alteration, we resolve to make it happen.
Arsène Wenger, on the other hand, hopes all his team’s transition is in the past. His new side completed the first half of the Premier League by assuming their most comfortable position of the campaign – two points clear in fourth. They start the second half with a tough-looking fixture at Fulham and, before the trip, the manager baulked at the suggestion his side was still in that much-feared footballing phase.
“I hope not,” he told Arsenal.com. “We had been forced into transition. But I hope that on the results side it will not be a transitional year because I would hate that personally.
“I am convinced that we will come back and fight our corner in a strong, determined and consistent way. If you look at the results we have made in the last 12 games, we have recovered quite well and are on a strong run so we have to keep that going.
“I did not know that we would be in the top four by the end of the year,” he continued. “I felt first of all [I had] to stop the crisis. And by ‘crisis’ I mean that the confidence level drops so much you play with fear.
“But I was confident because we have a good spirit. I always felt the players would try and I was confident because inside the Club we were quite solid. That’s why I said this Club has been brave and united because we have gone through some rocky times. I also knew we had the Champions League to play, so the team had something to focus on. That’s why we slowly came back.”
Of course, you can argue that it is the Premier League, not Arsenal, that has changed. This season and last, Wenger’s side has amassed a record of W11 D3 L5 after 19 games.
However in 2010/11, they were two points off the top and 16 from the relegation zone. This season, Arsenal are nine away from leaders Manchester City and 21 clear of third-from-bottom Wigan. Numerically, the standard of the Premier League has broadened.
“It is more stretched because Manchester City have had an outstanding run and Manchester United didn't have what they had last year,” explained Wenger.
“Away from home they have never been absolutely dominating but [previously] at home they have always made more points than everybody else. However we know that they become stronger in the second part of the season.
“Of course I know we have a big fight in front of us but I believe we can have a better second half of the season too. I also think that the other teams can weaken a bit. We will also have the help in our fixtures that we have played at Tottenham, Manchester United, Manchester City and Chelsea. Now all these teams will come to us. So we have a unique opportunity to gain some ground against them.
“But we are only one or two points ahead of the other teams, so it is very tight. With Liverpool winning, they have come back into the race, so it will be tight until the end.”
Thomas Vermaelen will be missing for three weeks after picking up a calf strain in the 1-0 win over QPR on New Year’s Eve. Francis Coquelin was the emergency left-back on the day but Ignasi Miquel will be favourite to reprise his Carling Cup role at Craven Cottage.
Thierry Henry will not be part of the squad as his loan deal is yet to be rubber-stamped.
Fulham have lost just one of their last five games – albeit that was a 5-0 thrashing by Manchester United. Martin Jol has gradually hauled his side away from the relegation zone in the second quarter of the Premier League season. Part of that process was a hard-fought, though deserved, 1-1 draw at Emirates Stadium six weeks ago.
“It was very difficult to create chances against Fulham that day,” recalled Wenger. “With the opportunities we had we still could have got the three points but we had just played Dortmund in a decisive Champions League game and we lacked a little bit of sharpness.
“It is always difficult for us against Fulham though. They are a good side, well-organised and have a good technical level especially Dickson Etuhu and Danny Murphy who did well on the day.
“It will be tough again this time,” the manager went on. “You can see that everyone finds motivation against Arsenal, everyone organises well and stops us from playing. That will happen again at Fulham.
“But, after the three points against QPR, we will be very focused to get the win there.”
Ref: L Probert
Arsenal: Santos (ankle), Vermaelen (calf), Mannone (shoulder), Wilshere (ankle), Gibbs (groin), Jenkinson (back), Diaby (hamstring), Sagna (ankle).
Fulham: Zamora (Achilles), Johnson (groin), Davies (back), Schwarzer (back), Grygera (back), Duff (calf).Copyright 2013 The Arsenal Football Club plc. Permission to use quotations from this article is granted subject to appropriate credit being given to www.arsenal.com as the source 1 Jan 2012