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Per Mertesacker admits Arsenal’s slow starts away to top-four rivals “killed” their hopes of maintaining a title challenge throughout the season.

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Apart from a brief spell just before Christmas, the Gunners headed the Premier League table for a five-month period between September and February.

But a 5-1 thrashing by Liverpool at Anfield prompted their slide – and further heavy defeats away to Chelsea and Everton tipped Arsene Wenger’s team into a battle just to hold on to fourth place.

Although the Gunners are just one result away from confirming their spot in next season’s Champions League qualifiers, Mertesacker concedes that lessons must be learned before they can harbour serious title ambitions.

“Of course everyone wanted us to get further up [the table], especially the fans,” said the German defender. “We were top of the league for a long time and everyone dreamt about maybe getting the title.

“But it takes more than just to stay at the top until the winter period. I think we couldn’t afford those away games against the big teams, so we didn’t deserve to be in the first three spots.

“That is something for next year that we have to manage much better. I think those away games killed us this year and hopefully we can learn from that.

“We have to learn quickly how to play and how to defend early in those away games, the first 20 to 25 minutes when you go there and they try to get you on the break.

“I think it was very similar in each game – the first 20 minutes we lost some balls in the middle of the park and they got us on the break. That’s something we have to look at next year.”

Despite the disintegration of their title bid, Arsenal have responded well in recent weeks and Monday’s 3-0 win against Newcastle was their third straight victory.

That makes the Gunners firm favourites to finish fourth, a position that could be confirmed even before they face West Brom in their final home game of the season on Sunday (kick-off 1.30pm).

Everton will be unable to catch Wenger’s side if they lose to Manchester City on Saturday, and Mertesacker feels Arsenal’s current form bodes well for their prospects next season.

“We play on Sunday so we have to wait, but we have it in our own hands and we want to secure the fourth spot,” he added. “We just have to think about the next game.

“The possibility to secure Champions League football was another test for us.

“Last year we managed to deal with an even more difficult situation – with 10 games to go, no-one expected us to be in the top four.

“This year, with a couple of injuries, we struggled heavily but we regrouped very well and how we managed this situation was maybe more important than last year.

“Everyone questioned us and our football qualities and I think the way we came back as a team makes us stronger for the future. We have improved a lot and we’re in good shape.”

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