At the half way stage of the league season, we examine campaign thus far for Arsenal FC along with the highlights and the nadirs.

Steve Bould and Arsene Wenger | Arsenal: Is The Defence Strong Enough For A Title Challenge

On the opening day of the season, as a 10-man Arsenal team were picked apart by Aston Villa on the break at the Emirates, one would have been excused for thinking that Arsene Wengerai??i??s time was up. Facing a torrent of abuse from the stands, one of Arsenalai??i??s greatest managers cut a lonely figure on the touchline. Arsenal had made no signings-despite a hefty cash balance-and disgruntlement turned to outrage and then to vile abuse.

Four months on, and 19 games into the Premier League season, things could not have been more different. The change in mood is stark; though the shadows of doubt continue lurk under the surface. Arsenal enter the new year top of the Premier League-albeit by just a solitary point- in what can be interpreted as an incredible turnaround after that opening day to Villa.

But look closely at Arsenalai??i??s performances over the past 12 months and you can discard the Villa result-not necessarily the performance-as an aberration. A wrong result at the wrong time. While it is fashionable these days to blame referees, and not unjustifiably, Anthony Taylorai??i??s poor performance that day at the Emirates played a major part in Arsenalai??i??s defeat. Before that, Arsenal were on an 11-match unbeaten streak in all competitions culminating in a 4th place finish in the 2012-13 season at the expense of arch-rivals Tottenham Hotspur.

So, in many ways, the Aston Villa result was an anomaly of sorts. But context is everything in football. Arsenal were made to look as transfer market pariahs after failed bids for Gonzalo Higuain and Luis Suarez. Spurs, on the other hand, unleashed a spending spree to break into the Top4. Despite losing their best player (Gareth Bale), they invested all the transfer money on making significant additions to the squad. Arsenal were being left behind by more shrewd operators in Daniel Levy, Andre Villas Boas and Franco Baldini, it was said.

But Arsene and his boys went about their business quietly. A 3-0 win at Galatasaray brought them back on track as did the 3-1 win at Fulham. They sealed qualification for the Champions League with an easy win at home against Galatasaray. The team had shown character and spirit to recover from that opening day defeat. And then came the big game: The North London derby at home to Tottenham. A must-win game as any Arsenal fan will tell you.

If one has to pick 3 games to illustrate what this Arsenal team is all about, it would have to be the 1-0 win at Newcastle in May, 1-0 win against Tottenham and the recent 1-0 win at Newcastle to end the year on top of the table. Yes, they may not be Arsenalai??i??s best performances but these results are representative of the fighting spirit flowing through this squad. These were wins achieved by sheer dint of hard work, organization, defensive doggedness and the ability to make most of the chances created.

These results also represent a second coming of sorts for Arsene Wenger. For the last 8 years, he has been accused of not being good tactically- doggedly pursuing his philosophy at the expense of results. This season the Frenchman has demonstrated flexibility adaptinghis tactics to the opposition, marrying pragmatism with his passing philosophy. As Santi Cazorla recently said in an interview, he is more ai???concentratedai???, more demanding of the players. Perhaps, he knows that he has a team capable of mounting a serious title challenge.

MertesackerWhile Aaron Ramsey has undoubtedly been one of the best performers of the season, Per Mertesacker has shown remarkable improvement in terms of defensive leadership forming a reliable partnership with Laurent Koscielny and Olivier Giroud too has improved significantly, the signing of Mesut Ozil has transformed the atmosphere at the club. It showed that Arsenal and Arsene were back shopping at the higher end of the market, after years of picking up bargains and callow youngsters. Arsene Wenger deserves as much credit as the players for convincing the German playmaker to come to North London.

As for the results, things have been largely positive. In the league, Arsenal have not dropped below 2nd place since a 3-1 win at the Stadium of Light against Sunderland in September. Tricky away games have been negotiated with unexpected ease as the Gunners have kept pace with big-spenders Manchester City and Chelsea. Compared to last season, performances at home have been much more convincing. A 1-1 draw against Everton proved to be a bit of a downer as did the dour 0-0 draw against Chelsea. The customary wobble in December has been quickly put on the back-burner courtesy of wins at West Ham and Newcastle.

In the Champions League, Arsenal came out of the Group of Death, but not unscathed. After a 1-0 win at Dortmund looked to have set them on their way to the top of the group, a 2-0 defeat at Napoli-where they seemed to lose their marbles after Artetaai??i??s sending off- meant finishing second in the group. A commendable effort rewarded with a round-of-16 clash against Europeai??i??s best team Bayern Munich. Another daunting task awaits in February.

Yet, Arsenal have not convinced everyone that they have the power to stay at the top. The 6-3 loss at the Etihad and the 1-0 win at Old Trafford were massive disappointments. These were great opportunities to shake that old monkey-of not defeating big teams- off their backs and Arsenal squandered them. February and March may yet turn out to be pivotal in deciding where Arsenal finish as they face the big-guns of the league and Bayern Munich. Mesut Ozil has drifted in and out of games, interspersing moments of brilliance with below-par spells. Santi Cazorla is yet to hit the heights of last season. Giroud looks knackered and a back-up striker is needed. Ramseyai??i??s injury is a cause for concern.

In a way, this can be viewed as a positive. Arsenal have seldom hit top gear this season and yet they are top of the league, confounding many critics. They have the best defensive record in the league along with the best away record. With Theo Walcott making a comeback from injury, Lukas Podolski waiting in the wings and Alex-Oxlade Chamberlian close to a comeback, Arsene Wenger has a fresher set of players to pick from. What he can make of them, we have to wait and watch.

Mid-season rating: 8/10

Best player: Aaron Ramsey and Per Mertesacker

Most improved player: Wojciech SzczAi??sny (miskicks notwithstanding)

Disappointing player of the season: Yaya Sanogo( a bit harsh but Arsene Wenger continuously referred to him as the back-up striker and he has disappeared)

Scope for improvement : Jack Wilshere

Best home performance of the season: 2-0 win against Liverpool

Worst home performance/result of the season: 2-1 loss to Dortmund

Best away performance of the season: 1-0 win at Dortmund (sheer doggedness)

Worst away performance of the season: 1-0 loss at Old Trafford (hit by a bug and didnai??i??t turn up in the first half)

***

Written by Chaitanya Lakkapragada

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