In Arsenal's last two games, Mikel Arteta has been a shadow of his usual self. He has looked fatigued and, at times, forlorn. With a top-of-the-table clash against Manchester City on the horizon, his poor form is a matter for real concern.
There's no doubt that Arsene Wenger still considers Arteta one of the most important members of this Arsenal team. He is an experienced figure and one of the dressing room's most natural leaders. That's reflected in the fact that in each of the last two games, the Spaniard has worn the captain's armband.
However, he has drastically underperformed.
Arteta will have been particularly disappointed with his performance in the Premier League clash with Everton as it came against his former club.
On the day, Arteta was outclassed by 20-year-old sensation Ross Barkley. Arteta simply couldn't live with Barkley's unusual combination of nimble footwork and raw power.
With Arteta looking so jaded against Everton, it was something of a surprise to see him picked to start in midweek against Napoli. Wenger opted to reunite Arteta with Mathieu Flamini, with Aaron Ramsey rested on the bench. The pairing of Arteta and Flamini had overrun the Naples outfit in the home tie but was significantly less convincing in the Stadio San Paolo.
Arteta's difficult night ended in the ignominy of a red card. His dismissal seemed a little harsh—he only committed two fouls during the entire game—but was symptomatic of a leggy performance.
Arteta is 31 now and looks as if he may be feeling the effects of a draining winter schedule. The way he was consistently brushed aside by the youthful Barkley suggests that his physical conditioning is not what it has been in the past. Doubts now surround whether or not Arteta will be able to pick himself up for the third massive game inside a week.
Arteta's poor form will be giving Wenger a considerable headache ahead of Saturday's crunch fixture at the Etihad.
Against a rampant City side, a defensive midfielder with Arteta's tactical nous and discipline could be invaluable. He has the ability and showed in November's 2-0 victory over Liverpool that he can be hugely effective in that position. However, if he performs as he did against Everton and Napoli, the Spaniard could be a liability.
With the likes of Yaya Toure, David Silva and Samir Nasri all able to attack from midfield areas, Arteta will need to be back to something approaching his best to keep City at bay.
In Flamini, Wenger has a solid alternative to his de facto skipper. Wenger will be keeping an eye on Arteta's sharpness and mental state between now and kick-off. If he doesn't show signs of improvement, he could find himself out of the XI.
James McNicholas is Bleacher Report's lead Arsenal correspondent and will be following the club from a London base throughout the 2013/14 season. Follow him on Twitter here.
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