The major issue that caused Arsenal's Christmas defeats - and why Mikel Arteta only has himself to blame

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Damaging defeats to Fulham and West Ham have left Arsenal adrift in the title race and it's clear to see where they've gone wrong.

Consecutive defeats to West Ham United and Fulham have put a massive dent in Arsenal’s season, leaving them fourth in the table behind Liverpool, Aston Villa and Manchester City – and their turgid performance at Craven Cottage has made a first Premier League title since 2003 look like a far more distant prospect than it did halfway through December. The sad fact is that Mikel Arteta only has himself to blame.

December is often the graveyard of championship challenges. Playing seven league games in such a short space of time tests the physical limits of even the fittest players, and the impact of all that time on the grass was clear in the listless showings several of the Gunners’ most important players offered up on Sunday. Take Declan Rice, whose form and fitness is key to Arsenal’s chances of winning the league – technically he was as good as ever, protecting the ball superbly and moving it around well enough, but the lung-busting runs to join attacks were missing and he wasn’t able to cover enough ground to keep Tom Cairney under wraps. He looked weary, and he wasn’t alone.

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No fewer than six of Arsenal’s outfield players started every single one of their league games in December – Gabriel Magalhães, William Saliba, Gabriel Martinelli, Bukayo Saka, Martin Ødegaard and the aforementioned Rice. By contrast, only two of Fulham’s outfield players (Antonee Robinson and João Palhinha) weren’t given a game on the bench over the same span of time. It isn’t a coincidence that Fulham looked more energetic and engaged all afternoon.

If Arteta had just a little more faith in his back-ups, perhaps Arsenal’s best players would have been a little fresher – but in the Spaniard’s defence, there is a definite drop-off from their first team to the players behind them. Saka, who has been made to play through injury for large parts of the season, is streets ahead of players like Reiss Nelson, while Fábio Vieira can’t hold a candle to Ødegaard. But by eschewing rotation entirely, Arteta has left his best players exhausted and unable to perform at their best.

The best managers in the Premier League era have been those who knew how to get the best out of their squads. Pep Guardiola rotates constantly throughout the campaign, much to the frustration of fantasy players. José Mourinho was adept at identifying matches in which he could rest important players without giving too much away to the opposition. Sir Alex Ferguson didn't rotate too much, but had a certain genius for getting big performances out of his back-ups when they were needed, even when they weren't especially great players otherwise. Arteta does not seem to have taken the lesson on board, or found his own method of extracting every last drop from his squad.

In the light of Sunday's listlessness, and the tired showing at the Emirates against West Ham, it seems even more absurd that when Arteta was given a chance to rest his most important players in a Champions League dead rubber against PSV Eindhoven, he still brought Rice, Ødegaard and Ben White (who started six of Arsenal’s seven league matches) on for the last half an hour - despite the fact that Arsenal had already won the group. It’s debatable whether all of those players should even have travelled to the Netherlands in the first place, less still played a reasonable chunk of a meaningless match.

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Arsenal’s lack of quality in reserve has always looked like the biggest issue they face in trying to end a 21-year title drought. Their starting eleven has unquestionable quality and Arteta has moulded them into a tight, technically-adroit unit which narrows the field to match their needs and outplays opposing teams on their own terms. But whenever a domino falls, there is a visible reduction in output – on Sunday, the absence of Oleksandr Zinchenko was felt especially keenly. Neither Jakub Kiwior nor his half-time replacement Takehiro Tomiyasu was able to replicate the Ukrainian’s ability to move into midfield to join Rice and form an effective double pivot, which alongside Rice’s apparent exhaustion gave Cairney all the room he needed to run the game for the home side.

The lack of depth makes some of Arsenal’s summer transfer work look a little strange in retrospect – the £65m move for Kai Havertz was always a very expensive gamble, but while the German’s form has definitely improved after a stuttering start, it’s still hard not to wonder if spreading that investment over two or even three players in key areas might not have been the better move. In fairness to sporting director Edu and the rest of Arsenal’s transfer team, injuries have played a part, especially those suffered by Thomas Partey and Emile Smith Rowe, but they must have been aware that the squad was thin in certain positions, especially out wide.

Of course, depth isn’t Arsenal’s only issue. They have a major concern at centre-forward, where they are forced to choose between Gabriel Jesus, who has exceptional movement but is a coin toss to hit the backside of a barn door, or Eddie Nketiah, who struggles to create room for himself but knows where the back of the net is. Neither is on the kind of form required to overcome their respective weaknesses, and the Gunners are far too reliant on the players behind the main striker for their goals. With Martinelli dropping off in front of goal this season, Arsenal can boast just the sixth most dangerous attack in the top flight. Last year, their 88 league goals was bettered only by eventual champions City. This year, are on track to score just 70.

Of course, nothing should be taken away from either West Ham or Fulham, who outmuscled and outfought Arsenal for almost every second ball, stuck to their tasks well when out of possession and afforded very little breathing room for what should, on paper, have been a superior side. Both clubs’ performances against the Gunners were excellent and not all of the fault should be placed at the feet of Arteta's squad management or his players' end product. There are reasons for it – or excuses – but sometimes the other team are simply better on the day.

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The bad news for Arsenal is that they are now below three teams in the table, two of whom have games in hand. If Liverpool beat Newcastle United at Anfield on Monday evening, they will have a five-point advantage, which is not insignificant. The good news is that the deficit isn’t insurmountable either, and they now get to return to the more relaxed schedule of one game per week, at least until the Champions League returns at the end of February. It’s their bad luck that they have been drawn against Liverpool in next weekend’s FA Cup third round – a nice easy game against Maidstone United, say, would have been a good chance to give everyone a proper weekend off. The other good news is that they will also have the chance to bolster their team in the January transfer window.

Much of the football media has them splashing some substantial sums of money about – Ivan Toney has been linked with a move across London for something like £100m, and a slew of exciting midfielders who wouldn’t cost much less have also been suggested as possible targets, some more plausibly than others. Whether Arsenal have the money to spend the huge sums being touted without falling afoul of profit and sustainability regulations remains to be seen, however, and even with a couple of big-money signings, one wonders whether their depth could come back to bite them again down the stretch.

Would this Arsenal side be able to sustain a title charge without Saka, or Rice perhaps? If they were injured, would their stand-ins have the quality to keep the Gunners on an even footing with the likes of Liverpool or City? Because even if Toney and Douglas Luiz arrived tomorrow, they wouldn’t plug every potential hole in the line-up. Arsenal had best hope that their most important players stay fresh for a while yet, or the long wait for a league title could go on a little longer yet.

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