Arsenal's route to top-four finish and Mikel Arteta's plan to guide Gunners back to glory

Arsenal's first game of the season came away at Brentford as Mikel Arteta took a squad ravaged by Covid cases to the Bees plush new stadium fearing the worst.

From an Arsenal perspective, the worst-case scenario unfolded in front of their eyes as goals from Sergi Canos and Christian Norgaard resigned the Gunners to a rare opening day defeat.

The morale was to only get lower in the weeks that followed as Arteta's troops were on the wrong end of brutal defeats by fellow top-six sides Chelsea and Manchester City.

What a difference a few signings make?

The Gunners gear up for the corresponding fixture against Thomas Frank's Brentford side this Saturday in a position so healthy few would have predicted they'd be anywhere near when they made that trip home from West London last August.

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Of the six new faces Arsenal acquired in the summer, only two started in Ben White and Albert Sambi Lokonga, while Nuno Tavares came off the bench late on.

Bolstered by the arrival of Aaron Ramsdale between the sticks, Takehiro Tomiyasu at right-back and Martin Odegaard pulling the strings - Arsenal look like a side transformed.

Arteta will know all too well how essential it is the Gunners get their revenge on Brentford come Saturday afternoon given their current standing in the Premier League table.

Arsenal find themselves in the precarious position of sixth, but only four points behind fourth-placed Manchester United and just two points behind West Ham in fifth - with a whopping three games in hand over both.

It is a testament to the impact the new faces have made this term that an Arsenal who are the youngest team in the division and jostling with a United side who recruited the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Raphael Varane in the summer.

The Gunners summer dealings were ridiculed by some, but few could have expected a goalkeeper who had been relegated twice in succession would suddenly be in contention for England's number one shirt.

Given his quiet and unassuming arrival on deadline day, no one predicted Tomiyasu to transform Arsenal's build-up play from right-back.

Ben White's transfer fee of £50million led plenty to mock the deal and question why Arsenal had forked out so much, yet the 23-year-old has helped keep 11 clean sheets this term so far.

To put that figure into context, the Gunners kept just 12 all season last time out - meaning they have 16 games to match or better that figure white White as a mainstay in their backline.

As cliche as it sounds, many of the Arsenal faithful have coined the phrase '16 cup finals' to prepare themselves for what is likely to be an anxious end to the season.

Arsenal nerves only just stopped jangling after their last clash away at Wolves which saw Arteta's side yet again forced to defend their lead valiantly while a man down.

Gabriel Martinelli became the latest Gunners player to receive a red card in what has quickly emerged as a troubling trend for Arteta's side, particularly since the turn of the calendar year.

Gabriel Magalhaes' goal was enough to secure a crucial 1-0 win at the Molineux and the full-time celebrations told the travelling support these players are just as desperate to secure fourth as they are.

Arsenal's route to top-four finish and Mikel Arteta's plan to guide Gunners back to glory

Yet for all their post-match passion, Arsenal have plenty of work still to do and should they get past Brentford they will welcome Wolves to the Emirates just five days later.

Arsenal are now staring down the barrel of what could not only be a defining run for their season - but a defining run of Arteta's tenure.

The Spaniard faced huge doubt over his tenure during the opening exchanges of this season but has since steadied the ship and then some.

Arteta has proven time again he is not one to cower away from a big decision.

Just look at the way he handled the Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang situation.

Keen to remind his players that no one can begin to act above their station, Arteta duly stripped the 32-year-old of the club captaincy, exiled him from the first-team fold before allowing him to leave for good to Barcelona.

The Gabon international clearly broke one of Arteta's famous "non-negotiables".

Sanctioning Aubameyang's departure without purchasing a replacement in the January transfer window could very well be a decision that makes or breaks Arteta come the end of the season.

Due to the way fixtures have been rescheduled from previously postponed clashes earlier in the campaign, the Gunners have avoided clashes against Chelsea and Liverpool and have a series of games some would describe as manageable at the very least.

In fact, Arsenal do not face off with another 'big-six' opponent until April 23 when they welcome Ralf Rangnick's Red Devils to the Emirates.

Between that time the Gunners play eight league fixtures - all against teams that as things stand are below them in the table.

That run includes home clashes Brentford, Wolves Leicester and Brighton as well as away trips to Watford, Aston Villa, Crystal Palace and Southampton.

While keen to take it one game at a time, Arteta must surely know a huge chance has presented itself at a pivotal stage of the season.

Spurs look out of sorts, United are in disarray - there is a window of opportunity Arsenal simply cannot afford to miss.

Securing Champions League football would fast-track the development of this young but already immensely talented side and provide them with the confidence to go on and do more next term.

From Arteta's perspective, the message to his players must be simple - keep doing what you are doing, there is little need to tweak anything, Arsenal may not need to be brilliant to secure fourth, but just be able to do enough.

The race for Champions League qualification has already seen enough shock results to be fairly certain that whoever does get it is likely to have stumbled over the line.

"I feel like we're building something special here with all the players and the staff," Odegaard revealed to the club website.

A win on Saturday against Brentford in what is undoubtedly the most important game of the season so far would surely transmit that feeling to the rest of the Emirates faithful.

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