Arsenal don't deserve to finish higher than fourth, says Per Mertesacker

• Team must learn from heavy away defeats to top three
• Mesut Özil can help Gunners to fourth and FA Cup glory

After Arsenal had moved a step closer to Champions League qualification by beating Newcastle on Monday, Per Mertesacker took a moment to reflect on how his club's sightlines changed during the season. Having led the Premier League table for 17 weeks, the team allowed themselves to believe that the title was possible. But some harrowing defeats took their toll and left the defender admitting that Arsenal do not merit a place any higher than fourth.

"We didn't deserve to be in the first three," Mertesacker says with typical candour. "That is something for next year that we have to manage much better than this year. The early away games killed us this year. Hopefully we can learn from that."

It will be interesting to see how they address the trips in question – lunchtime kick-offs at Manchester City, Chelsea and Liverpool in which Arsenal sleepwalked towards a thumping – at the end of the season, and try to figure out a solution. Mertesacker is ready to tackle the challenge head on.

Those three results, with a startling aggregate scoreline of 17-4, "killed the first three spots," he says. "We have to learn quickly how to play and how to defend in the first 20 to 25 minutes. It was very similar in each game. The first 20 minutes we lost some balls in the middle of the park, they got us on the break and that is something we have to look at next year."

The fact Arsenal slumped when injuries stacked up and confidence dwindled led to serious doubts about a top-four finish, but Mertesacker is hopeful that the response in the past few weeks is something to build on.

"Everyone questioned our qualities and our football," he says. "How we came back as a team, that makes us stronger for the future. We can learn a lot about ourselves from this. Last year we managed to deal with an even more difficult situation. Ten 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 even more important maybe than last year.

"To get the possibility to secure Champions League football, that was another test for us. Of course, everyone wanted us to get further up, especially the fans. We were top of the league for a long time and everyone dreamed of maybe getting the title. But it takes more than just to stay top until the winter period. We couldn't afford those away games against big teams."

On the subject of expecting greater things after learning from this campaign, Mertesacker is sure Mesut Özil, his team-mate for club and country, is ready to have a big impact as Arsenal look to close out a top-four finish and hope for silverware in the shape of the FA Cup.

"It is very important that he is back for the last couple of games," says Mertesacker. "The first Premier League season is always tough for anyone. It's good to have a little break with the injury and he could maybe think about what happened in the last couple of months. That little review maybe helped him come back quickly to the pitch. He's coming back to full fitness and you see what he can make with his potential.

"Everyone knows we are in the Cup final, we can secure Champions League football, so good targets to go for. Of course, we are happy to have a lot of players back and you can see the squad is getting stronger and stronger."

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