We return to Premier League action on New Year's Day against Crystal Palace, and ahead of the game Rob Kelly spoke to Arsène Wenger about the game.

THE QUOTE

“We want to go higher up, we want to go to a different level and that demands absolutely that everybody contributes even more.” - Arsène Wenger

THE PREVIEW

Much is made of the style with which we play our football, but sometimes what is needed most is some steel - and the Boxing Day clash against West Brom saw us deliver both.

For 87 minutes, it looked as if our title ambitions were about to take a knockout blow. As we knocked on the door, before starting to hammer on it throughout a long, frustrating second half, a goal seemed destined never to arrive.

But Olivier Giroud’s looping header not only provided some much-needed festive cheer, but also breathed new life into a campaign laid low after the distressing week that had preceded it.

Approved kits

Approved Kits 

OP = Outfield Players
GK = Goal Keepers

It was also the seventh time this season that we have scored in the last five minutes of a Premier League match, highlighting both the stamina and the mental fortitude of the team.

“Coming after two bad results, we didn’t panic, we kept going,” Arsène Wenger said. “We had a relentless attitude and in the end we managed to win it. 

“We’ve done that many times this season, so that means the resolve is there and the stubbornness too. We said we want to have style and steel, and I think we maybe showed more steel than style in this game, but it will be important for our season. 

“Of course, we were shocked from the week before and it is always a big test - if you look around you, some teams do not win for five or six games. We responded well to four shocking days, and we managed to win the game. 

“That was a very important game for us, but in the end we got there with the needed mental ingredients, maybe more than the football ingredients.”

Team news

Arsenal: Walcott (calf), Welbeck (knee - doubt), Gibbs (knee), Cazorla (ankle), Mertesacker (knee), Debuchy (hamstring)

Crystal Palace: McArthur, Ledley (both leg), Tomkins (groin), Sako (muscle), Wickham (knee), Remy (calf), Mandanda (knee), J Benteke (knee), Souare (leg)

It was certainly a relief to end what has generally been a positive year in good spirits. Of the 53 games we have played over the past 12 months, we have won 28 and scored 106 goals in the process - although Wenger feels there is room for improvement in 2017.

“We were consistent overall and I feel we have moved forward,” he said. “We were second in the league last season, but we want more. 

“We want to show we can go again to the next level. Overall 2016 was an improvement year [in terms of] the quality of our results, but still not where we want it to be. We are conscious of that and we want to put in the effort to get to the level where we really want to be.

“[The players need] to keep the attitude they have now; the togetherness, the focus and get the hunger to always have that daily attitude to improve. 

“We want to go higher up, we want to go to a different level and that demands absolutely that everybody contributes even more. 

“We live in a world of small margins now, in every single game the margin has become smaller for everybody, so to be as close as possible to your best has become absolutely vital for that. You need players to be absolutely 100 per cent focused on every game.”

ONE TO WATCH

When Granit Xhaka first arrived at the club in the summer, much was expected of him after his big-money move from Borussia Monchengladbach.

A superlative showing at Watford in the third game of the season underlined his potential, but he then spent long periods on the bench awaiting his chance. It perplexed some fans as to why he was not starting more regularly, but Wenger was simply helping him to gradually make the transition to English football.

Now the manager feels we are seeing the benefits in a midfielder who has made tangible strides since his arrival in the Premier League.

“I believe he is on the way up, he is a much more intense player today, a much more complete player because he contributes a lot defensively as well - that’s what I did not see at the start,” Wenger said.  

Granit Xhaka
Granit Xhaka

“He made some outstanding passes [against West Brom], his finishing still has some room for improvement but he has it in his locker. I just want him to focus on being strong defensively, and give the quality of his pass to the team and the rest will come along.

“There is a gap between what he can do to go to the next level, and where he is at the moment. Especially at his age, he is on the way up. I am confident he will [achieve that] because he is focused every day but that will depend basically on whether he can keep this attitude and that hunger to do it.”

Xhaka’s burgeoning partnership with Francis Coquelin is another positive point - with Arsenal fans keen to see them paired together on Sunday - and Wenger is pleased with their understanding.

“They give us a good defensive stability, they are strong in the challenge and overall I believe Granit can play with anybody and Coquelin can play with anybody,” he said. “Coquelin has played with Cazorla, with Elneny, and so has Granit as well. They are adaptable because they have both sides of the game in their locker, they can defend and attack so they can always adapt.”

THE OPPOSITION

The appointment of Sam Allardyce as Crystal Palace manager adds a fresh level of intrigue to this match, considering both the distant and more recent past.

The 62-year-old’s brief spell as England manager captured plenty of headlines, but it is his clashes with Wenger in the early 2000s that will live long in the memory for Arsenal fans.

The Frenchman is certainly in no doubt to his opposite number’s quality, and he expects an even more fired-up Palace side than usual on New Year’s Day.

“He has the experience, he has been in similar jobs before and has succeeded,” Wenger said. “When you face an experienced manager, you should not speculate on any weakness of your opponents, just focus on your strengths and your desire and the way you want to play the game because they will be well prepared and well organised.

“Everyone starts on the same level again with a new manager. So for a while there is an impact and I think Allardyce has enough experience to make the right decisions. 

“You expect Palace to defend well against us, they have as well some strong offensive power because they have Benteke, Zaha who is in good form at the moment, Townsend is playing, so we will need again to have a go and to defend well. They have a good offensive threat so for us it will be very important to find that balance.”

FROM THE ARCHIVES

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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
30 Dec 2016