By Chris Harris
"We have not been let down by the goals we have scored. We want to improve our defensive focus and I think what was very interesting at West Ham is that all 11 players were focused on defending well together." - Arsene Wenger
And so another year at Arsenal draws to a close.
It began with the Gunners leading one title race and ends with them off the pace in another, but most certainly on an upward curve after a profitable December that brought five wins. In the middle of all that was a rejuvenating FA Cup triumph, and the capture of a true world-class performer in Alexis Sanchez.
Arsene Wenger prefers to look forward, not back, but he allowed himself a moment to reflect on what was - and what might have been - in 2014.
"What makes me most proud is that we won the FA Cup after a few years without winning a trophy," he told Arsenal Player.
"Again we were in the top four and we made 79 points, which is a total that we cannot be ashamed of. Also we maintained the values and the quality of the spirit in our camp for the whole of 2014, even going sometimes through some difficult spells.
"I think again we had a great spirit, great consistency and that was despite the fact that we had many injuries in 2014/15. We are still in a position that allows us to have hope for the end of the season."
The injury list Wenger speaks of has eased somewhat in December, but the manager is still without the midfield triumvirate of Mikel Arteta, Aaron Ramsey and Jack Wilshere, plus German duo Mesut Ozil and Serge Gnabry.
There is a doubt over Danny Welbeck's involvement on New Year's Day after the England forward suffered a thigh injury during that battling 2-1 win at West Ham. Olivier Giroud is suspended and Yaya Sanogo is not fully fit, so Tomas Rosicky will return and Alexis may start his third game in six days.
"We are more stable because we have defensive stability and more experience at the back"
Wenger must decide whether to station Mathieu Flamini and Francis Coquelin in front of his back four for a second consecutive game. They were the right choice for a physical test against West Ham, and the Arsenal manager is keen to maintain his team's defensive stability.
"We had two derby games [over Christmas] which had big intensity for different reasons," he said. "In the first one we played with 10 men for 40 minutes and in the second game we were confronted with a very committed game and I felt that the focus and desire was absolutely outstanding.
"Overall we came out with two good results and deserved them, and we are more stable because we have better defensive stability and have more experience at the back.
"When you look at the Stoke game we were caught a bit by our lack of experience. Defensively the experience plays a big part in the stability."
For the second time in three seasons, Arsenal will visit Southampton on New Year's Day.
This year's surprise package, the Saints were a breath of fresh air at the start of 2014 before fading to finish eighth, and have survived an exodus of talent to rise again under new manager Ronald Koeman.
The production line that delivered Theo Walcott, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Calum Chambers continues to churn out talent, while Koeman has bought wisely and defied the critics who predicted a season of struggle on the south coast.
"Southampton are a good team who have been in the top four since the start of the season - after 19 games that’s not a coincidence, so we have to consider that they are a good side," said Wenger. "We played them twice [this season] and they were two difficult games.
"They are a balanced team with a good midfield and quality strikers as well in Dusan Tadic and Graziano Pelle. Sadio Mane is also always very dangerous. They have a good stability from last season at the back and in midfield. They added three very good strikers and that explains their success.
"Koeman has done a remarkable job, he has done very well and bought very well. He gets them to play very good football and they made it very difficult for Chelsea last weekend [in a 1-1 draw]."
This has been a rewarding festive period for Arsenal - they started it in sixth and could end it in the Champions League places if they pull off a third win in nine days.
But Southampton away has emerged as one of the toughest dates in the calendar, and the Gunners were slightly fortunate to escape with draws on their last three visits to St Mary's.
"What we want is to be more consistent in our defending in 2015 because I feel that, compared to last season, we have improved a lot in the big games"
Wenger saw his team score 102 goals in the last calendar year and he expects more in 2015 given the firepower at his disposal. But his No 1 wish for the New Year is a return to the defensive resilience that laid the foundations for last season's title challenge.
"What we want is to be more consistent in our defending in 2015 because I feel that, compared to last season, we have improved a lot in the big games," he said. "We go into a period where every game matters now and our defensive consistency is very important.
"You would expect our goal tally to be even higher in 2015. We have not been let down by the goals we have scored. We want to improve our defensive focus and I think what was very interesting at West Ham is that all 11 players were focused on defending well together.
"If we want to improve, that’s where we need to be consistent."
While Arsenal fans around the world ring in the New Year, Wenger and his players will get an early night ahead of their examination on the south coast.
"We will be in the hotel and will be preparing our game," said the manager. "What matters to us is to win the game. Preparing well for the game is the best way to win it."
So no fireworks for Wenger on Wednesday night. Instead he'll hope for pyrotechnics on the pitch - and a winning start to 2015.
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