By Richard Clarke
At the end of the year, we all reflect.
Before steeling ourselves to ‘go again’, most of us pause to ponder the past 12 months. Arsène Wenger is no different.
But this is a process of applying slow thinking to memories viewed in fast forward. And that can take you to interesting places.
For example when asked for his key moments of 2012, the Arsenal manager intended to choose just one but, in the end, gave three - each illuminating in its own way. Here is what he said.
“The one that was vital for me was Kieran Gibbs’ tackle at West Bromwich Albion in the last second of the last game [last season],” he started. “That was the game which guaranteed us Champions League football in the final moment after we had almost been kicked out. That was my one important moment of the season last year.
“But what I will keep too,” he went on, “is how much this team is united and focused and wants to do well. I just hope that they will be rewarded because they are one of the most focused teams I’ve seen. I know we have the quality so it’s important that we manage to transform that into results.
“And of course,” he added with the thoughts clearly flowing now, “another moment was when five players who we are educating signed again together.
“They gave out a strong message to our fans that they want to stay at the Club because the vibes we got many times was that the players are leaving us. But for the first time, we could give a [different] signal out.”
So there we have it, Wenger’s nod to the past, present and future as he prepares for his final game of 2012. But what does he want for the New Year?
In the end it was the usual - some resolution.
“To be consistent with our results at home and continue our away form,” he answered. “For me our away form has been great. We have only lost at Norwich and Manchester United and we have played in some difficult places. For example you could see from Liverpool at Stoke this week, how difficult they are to beat at home. And I’m convinced we will be very strong at home as well now.”
With Newcastle arriving for a Saturday tea-time kick-off at Emirates Stadium, that must be the focus. Arsenal have strung together three straight wins in the Premier League (albeit with the Bradford defeat in the middle) and at full-time after the win at Wigan last Saturday they had risen to third.
The rest of the division have played two games since then, so – after the postponement of their Boxing Day game at home to West Ham - Wenger’s men go into their next fixture down in seventh. They have yet to win back-to-back home games in the Premier League this term but, on the road, only Manchester City have lost fewer games and conceded fewer goals. The area for development is clear.
“For me our form away from home shows the real quality of the team,” said Wenger. “At home the confidence and united attitude with the public is vital and I am sure we will get that from them now.
“It is an overall confidence issue. The away results will improve the confidence of the team and therefore you will see us [get better] at home. We had a good performance against West Brom and then had two good away wins so the positive consequences of this run should come into the game against Newcastle.”
Arsenal have precious few injury problems right now. Olivier Giroud and Tomas Rosicky have recovered from illness so they should be available. Abou Diaby (thigh) and Andre Santos (muscle) are expected to join in full training next week. That leaves only Lukasz Fabianski (ankle) on the treatment table.
Newcastle were the surprise package of the Premier League last season. Fifth place put them into Europe and prompted the club to secure manager Alan Pardew on a long-term contract but they have struggled to repeat the feat.
They arrive in north London fifth from bottom with only 20 points from the first half of the campaign and they are the only side outside the bottom two not to have registered an away win.
Of course they so nearly put that right on Boxing Day, leading three times at Old Trafford before, somewhat inevitably, losing to a last-gasp strike.
For Wenger the game suggested they occupy a false position in the table.
“The Premier League is very difficult and the most difficult thing is obtaining consistency in your performances and your results,” he said.
“Newcastle have gone through a difficult start but they showed [against Manchester United] that they have qualities and they have not lost them. For us, it’s important to be well focused on this game and prepare.”
Despite their travails, Newcastle can take solace in the return to form of striker Demba Ba, who shone brightly last season before struggling for scoring form after Pardew brought in compatriot Papiss Cisse in January.
This term, however, Ba is back with 11 Premier League goals at a ratio of one every two games. Cisse, on the other hand, has only half that figure.
“They are both top quality,” said Wenger by way of explanation. “But sometimes strikers have problems finding their space when they live together.
“It was all built up around Ba when he was on his own. After, he had to share that with Cisse. It took them a while to find a new balance and I think they’ve found it now. We saw that at Old Trafford.
“I believe both of them can be very dangerous now and both have top qualities for a striker - power, intelligence and good finishing.”
After Newcastle, Arsenal will have played their 19th game and therefore will be at the halfway point of their season.
The volume within the team’s ‘glass’ at the midway point will be coloured by your personal viewpoint and no-one is pretending the road so far travelled has been free from pot-holes.
But during the latter half of 2012, the platform for a new team has been put in place.
The first half of 2013 will be all about building upon it.
See you next year.
Arsenal: Fabianski (ankle), Diaby (match fitness), Santos (match fitness)
Newcastle: S Taylor (hamstring), Ben Arfa (hamstring), Cabaye (groin), R Taylor (knee), Vuckic (knee), Gosling (knee)