By Chris Harris
"For 2016 the target is now to be the best team. One thing that is very positive is that if we are the best team from January to May, we will be very happy."
Arsenal fans all over the world rang in the new year with their team sitting proudly at the top of the table.
The burning question for 2016 is: can they stay there?
Pessimists will point to stats like this one: it's the fourth time in 14 years that Arsenal have started a calendar year as the Premier League's No 1. In none of those previous three seasons did they go on to win the title.
Optimists will retort with Arsène Wenger's strong hint that he is about to replenish his squad, plus a nod to the 2015 table, which shows that Arsenal picked up nine more points than their nearest rival - 81 to Manchester City's 72.
Wenger is obviously in the optimists' camp and, at the halfway stage of the campaign, he delivered his own 'half-term report' on the team's progress.
Like any student, Arsenal are prone to lapses - like the Boxing Day slump at Southampton. Yet there is a maturity and determination about the Gunners this season, and a sense that, when they put their minds to it, they have every chance of staying top of the class.
|Arsenal: Wilshere (ankle), Welbeck (knee), Rosicky (knee), Coquelin (knee), Arteta (ankle - doubtful), Cazorla (knee), Alexis (hamstring)
Newcastle: Anita (hamstring), Cisse (groin), Williamson (hamstring), Haidara (knee), Aarons (ankle), Krul (knee), Obertan (hamstring), Taylor (hamstring), Riviere (knee), Good (hip)
"I would say we are a team who had a little bit of a difficult start," Wenger told Arsenal Player. "When you lose the first game at home, it’s always a big blow. But we have had fantastic spirit and have always shown that when we are in trouble we can fight back.
"Overall, when you look at our continuity, 2015 was a positive year because we won the FA Cup, improved our results in the Premier League at the start of the year, continued with that and today we are in a strong position.
"We are hungry - our hunger and desire is very strong. We have survived despite the fact that we have been hit by very bad injuries and have made some fantastic results.
"I'm happy that we could win silverware again - the FA Cup and the Community Shield," he went on. "And that we are today competing at the top of the Premier League. That’s what I work every day for. To make our fans and everyone who loves the club proud is what pleases me the most."
It's all very well being nine points clear over the course of a calendar year, but Arsenal need to be the best from August to May.
"Yes, for 2016 [the target] is now to be the best team," said Wenger. "One thing that is very positive is that if we are the best team from January to May, we will be very happy.
"That’s our target, and knowing that the Premier League is an extremely competitive league, and looking at the results around you, of course you know that you need to put in the effort to be competitive in every game."
ONE TO WATCH
This section could probably just say 'Mesut Ozil'.
The playmaker was on a different level to everyone else against Bournemouth on Monday. He created nine goalscoring chances (more than any player in a single game this season), put the opener on a plate for Gabriel and took his own goal with cool authority. Those comparisons with the great Dennis Bergkamp are justified.
But at this time of the year it is the depth of a squad that can make or break a title challenge. Of those on the fringes of Wenger's team, Gabriel has stepped up as much as anyone.
In for the fatigued Laurent Koscielny, the Brazilian gave a glimpse of the future with a barnstorming display at both ends. He powered home Ozil's corner to quell early anxiety, hit the post with another header, was assured in possession and raised the roof with a clutch of crunching challenges.
"Gabriel was a bit in the shade of Ozil and [clean-sheet record breaker] Petr Cech [against Bournemouth], but on the day he produced an outstanding performance," said Wenger. "He has shown that he is a very good centre back and that he will be a great player for the future of our club. That is very positive."
Gabriel's tenacity and fondness for a tackle - one spectacular sliding challenge late in the first half springs immediately to mind - was reminiscent of a famous predecessor in the No 5 shirt: Martin Keown.
"I agree, he has aspects of Martin in his desire, in his focus, in his desire to win and to be committed," said Wenger. "[He has] this kind of satisfaction when he wins a decisive challenge, which is a bit Martin-ish, yes.
"Gabriel is a winner - you see that in his attitude and that he has the quality of the concentration. The determined attitude he has makes himself an outstanding defender."
Newcastle head into the new year under a cloud. Pavel Srnicek, a fans' favourite at St. James' Park in the nineties, passed away this week at the age of 47.
Wenger paid tribute to the Czech Republic goalkeeper during his press conference and then outlined the Newcastle players that could make Saturday a more joyful one for the Tyneside club.
|There have been 18 goals scored in the last three Premier League meetings between these two sides at the Emirates Stadium
Olivier Giroud has scored eight goals in seven Premier League games against the Magpies.
Giroud has managed five headers on target against Newcastle in the Premier League and scored with all of them/td>
"First of all they have strikers like Cisse, Mitrovic and Ayoze Perez," said Wenger. "Then they have players who can make the difference in the middle of the park, like Sissoko, who is extremely dangerous going forward, especially in transitions on counter-attacks. He’s a very powerful player.
"They have leaders at the back like Coloccini. In Wijnaldum they have a very creative player who can score goals. If you look at the names in the team, you know that this team is a potential threat."
December wins over Liverpool and Tottenham repaired some of the damage after a dismal start to Newcastle's season, but Steve McClaren's team remain in the bottom three. Wenger expects them to try and contain Arsenal and look to be ruthless on the counter-attack.
"Like all the teams who are in an uncomfortable situation psychologically where the confidence is low, they are better away from home," he said.
"They have no responsibility to build the game, which demands a lot of confidence. They have the qualities to be very strong in transition. That explains why they have made some surprising results away from home."Copyright 2017 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