Arsenal's slim top-four hopes disintegrating after three defeats in four games

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It was all going so well. Wind the clock back just over two weeks and Arsenal travelled to Liverpool riding the crest of a wave.

Mikel Arteta’s side were 10 games unbeaten and looking like they could launch an unlikely assault on the top four. But then they got to Anfield.

Four games and three defeats later and a season that was looking hugely encouraging has been turned on its head.

The league table still doesn’t look that bad, with Arteta’s side just four points outside of the Champions League places, but the manner of the recent defeats have raised familiar questions about Arsenal.

They crumbled amid a Liverpool onslaught at Anfield, as they always do. Then they led against Manchester United at Old Trafford on Thursday, only to end up with nothing.

And it was a similar story on Monday night as they threw away a 1-0 advantage to lose 2-1 at Everton thanks to Demarai Gray’s dramatic injury-time winner.

What we’ve seen this week is a theme that is becoming far too familiar for the Gunners. They get themselves in front, only to sit back and allow the opposition back into the game. When the match is there to be won, they seem to disappear into their shells.

“We have to do better when we have that lead,” Martin Odegaard said after Monday night’s defeat. “We stopped playing and gave them the game they wanted to play.

"I think it is [a mindset problem]. When you're leading 1-0 you get afraid to lose the win and, in my opinion, that's what we did wrong. 

“You go for the second goal and that was the intention but we didn't manage to do that on the pitch.”

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Mindset issues have long plagued Arsenal and it’s been something that their opponents have consistently looked to take advantage of over the years.

But it looked for a time during that unbeaten run throughout September and October that Arteta’s new side were starting to show that they had something a bit different about them. This past week, however, has proven that problems still remain.

That is perhaps to be expected, given the youthful makeup of the side, but Arteta knows that his team can’t afford to be throwing leads away on a regular basis if they want to improve on two successive eighth-placed finishes in the Premier League.

"I'm very disappointed," he said. "We didn’t have enough penetration or threat on the opponents' goal.

"One of the few times we did it, we scored a goal from Martin and then, in the second half, we had to grab the game, but again, in moments we were sloppy.

"We gave too many balls away too easily and encouraged them against the movement that they had in the press.

"We couldn't take the ball into the final third. We lost a few important duels that put us under some pressure."

The key for Arteta will now be to pick his players up ahead of two crucial home games over the coming week.

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They host Southampton on Saturday before West Ham – who currently sit fourth – travel to the Emirates on Wednesday, December 15.

Six points from those two games and things will look very different going into the busy festive period. But several questions will still remain, even if they do pick up maximum points.

Why are Arsenal so passive when they are in front? Why do they struggle to create chances on a consistent basis?  And what is going on with Nicolas Pepe?

There were 19 minutes left at Everton when Gabriel Martinelli slumped to the turf with what looked like cramp.

Given the Brazilian had been operating as a winger in Arteta’s 4-2-3-1 formation, his most obvious replacement was Arsenal’s club-record signing.

But the fact Pepe was still sitting on the bench wrapped from head to toe in his training gear spoke volumes. He wasn’t even a consideration. Instead, it was Eddie Nketiah who was sent to replace Martinelli.

So, Arsenal spent the final quarter of the game at Goodison Park playing with a striker – who has just rejected a contract offer and looks certain to be leaving at the end of the season – playing out wide.

If Arsenal were a free-scoring team you could understand why Pepe was being left out in the cold. But they have scored just 18 times in 15 league games this season.

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Pepe may not be the saviour, but given he finished the 2020-21 campaign as the Gunners' second-leading scorer with 16 goals in all competitions, there is no doubt he has the qualities to make a significant difference in the final third.

Yet he has been on the field for just five minutes during Arsenal’s last seven league games and didn’t play a single minute during the defeats at Liverpool, United and Everton.

"I decided to play Eddie and he created three chances and hit the post in 25 minutes," Arteta explained when quizzed on the substitution after the game.

"He does what you saw him do in 25 minutes here every day in training," Arteta added. "Every single day. That’s why I picked him."

For the first time since the opening fortnight of the season, when they lost their opening three games without scoring a goal, Arsenal find themselves in crisis mode.

At this point last season, they allowed their campaign to spiral out of control and it wasn’t until the emergence of Emile Smith Rowe after Christmas that they managed to dig themselves out of the mire.

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Things are nowhere near as bad as that yet and two wins from the next two games will leave them within touching distance of the top four ahead of the Christmas period. But the past fortnight has once again left Arsenal with their backs against the wall.

Arteta has nowhere to hide this season. He now has a squad that has his hallmarks all over it and he has no European football to worry about, meaning he gets time on the training ground with his players that many of his peers could only dream about.

Arsenal’s manager has to find a way of ensuring this blip doesn’t grow into anything more serious. If it does, then the questions over his future that were so prevalent over the opening weeks of the season will once again return.