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NOTThe first four weeks have passed since Arsenal last played at the Emirates and there won’t be many fond memories of that occasion. They struggled against Burnley, although they bucked their recent trend of finishing with 10 men. Nice margins like this are supposed to matter when you’re fighting for the top four: Sean Dyche’s side had only kept one clean sheet in the league all season, so it was surprising that they held a point in relative comfort.

Arsenal were sixth then, just as they are now, but the picture is markedly different. The scales tipped in their favour. A win at Molineux in their only game of the interim period helped, but the shortcomings of their entourage did just as much to set the mood. Since the draw with Burnley, the two teams above them and the pair below have played a total of 10 games and picked up 12 points. Manchester United, West Ham, Tottenham and Wolves remain squarely in the Champions League race but, despite having barely kicked a ball for a month, Arsenal find themselves in the box.

They are three games behind against United and West Ham, who are four and two points clear of them respectively. Brentford are Saturday’s visitors and it’s been a long time since, in the opener of the campaign, a Covid-hit Arsenal were beaten in west London with Ivan Toney saying: ‘I don’t see them winning whatever it’s so soon.” The Bees forward might be technically right, but given Arsenal’s last half-decade, Mikel Arteta would be perfectly entitled to accept Arsene Wenger’s statement in 2012 that fourth place would count as a “trophy”.

Arsenal looked weak that night at Brentford Community Stadium, cowering under a barrage of set pieces and direct balls. It seemed like a familiar story but they have become a side with backbone and Arteta agrees his players are mentally stronger than they were six months ago.

“Losses are a big part of that mental toughness,” he said. “They prepare you, they make you tougher. [The team] understand the pain you go through when you lose a football game and have criticism, when everyone questions you. You have to fight against this situation: it is also what creates mental strength.

Arteta wants Arsenal to be impactful, as long as they stay within acceptable limits. That, in itself, has sparked a lot of discussion since Gabriel Martinelli’s unusual shipment to Wolves. It was their fourth red card in six games in all competitions and the 15th in the manager’s 26-month reign. Arsenal are not a bad team; more prone to fleeting misjudgments that are natural in a young team that likely needs to operate close to the edge to compete. The theories of refereeing bias and conspiracies circulating among sections of the fanbase are nonsensical, though the consistency of high-level officials has obviously been flawed, but Arteta is cunning enough to know that a state of mind against us can work in favor of Arsenal.

Arteta feels Arsenal have the backbone to stand tall in the battle for the top four |  Arsenal
Gabriel Martinelli’s bizarre dismissal against Wolves was Arsenal’s fourth in the last six games. Photo: David Price/Arsenal FC/Getty Images

“One hundred percent,” he replied when asked if a bunker mentality would bring his team together. “I want the team to feel they have the tools and the right mindset to deal with whatever comes their way. Whether it’s injuries, bad decisions, whatever the way. whatever happens, the team needs to be prepared. That mental toughness is something you need to work on every day.

One piece of context against Brentford, before further controversies come into play, is the fact that Arsenal have little leeway when it comes to squad depth. If anyone were to be suspended for a game at this point, Martinelli was probably the best candidate, simply because Emile Smith Rowe is a more than satisfactory replacement on the left flank. The assistant option would be a step back in virtually any other position and there is a feeling that despite their favorable position and the excellence of their first-choice team, the season will stand or fall keeping the players available.

It’s likely someone will have to come out on the sidelines and Arteta is still hopeful that Nicolas Pépé, who finished 2020-21 on a high but has played 24 minutes in the Premier League since October 18, can make a difference Unai Emery believed that he bought in 2019. “Since he came back from Afcon, I think I’ve seen a different Nico,” said Arteta, who has made similar statements in the past. “He had a brilliant end to the season last year. He can replicate that. We need him at best because everyone is going to contribute. We are a very short team at the moment and I hope he understood that we want to play him.

Brentford, desperate for a win to fend off the threat of a relegation battle, will be a tough opponent. “We know what stage of the season we are at and what the objective is,” Arteta said. Arsenal may have seen their four rivals fight their way through in recent weeks, but their tight-knit unit must now prove their worth.

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