Mikel Arteta's return to Goodison Park at the weekend could not have gone worse.
However, after kissing the Arsenal badge during the recent FA Cup win over Roberto Martinez’s side, Arteta incurred the wrath of the Everton fans. They have not forgotten the indiscretion.
During the Toffees’ 3-0 victory at Goodison, Arteta was roundly mocked by his former fans. His personal nadir of the match saw him pushed to the ground by Ross Barkley. Not a single Arsenal team-mate responded to the provocation, and Arteta ended up being booked for his understandably wild protests.
Arteta’s irritation was only compounded by a post-match prank pulled by one cheeky Everton fan. According to the Daily Mail, an Evertonian asked to pose with the Spanish midfielder, only to taunt him with a three-fingered salute as the photograph was actually taken.
The moment with Barkley was a microcosm for Arteta’s whole performance. The veteran Spaniard was pushed aside with far too much ease by a midfield who looked younger, stronger and more determined.
In recent weeks, Arteta’s performance levels have plummeted. In a side chronically lacking confidence, his faults have been ruthlessly exposed.
Arteta has never been the most physical of players. At Everton, he functioned predominantly as a playmaker. Only at Arsenal did he convert to the more defensive role of "pivote." Even then, he used brains rather than brawn to tidy up in the middle of the park.
However, time has taken its toll on the former Rangers man. When Arteta first arrived at Arsenal, he was tasked with helping to settle a team in chaos. Arsenal have relied on his experience and calmness in possession for nearly three years. In that period, he’s been asked to play an awful lot of football, and now it appears as if it’s catching up with him.
Arteta is now 32 years old. He is past his peak and struggling to cope with the effervescent energy of the likes of Barkley and Chelsea’s Nemanja Matic.
He’s missed Aaron Ramsey enormously. The Welshman’s relentless energy makes him a complementary partner for Arteta’s instinctive positional sense. In his absence, Arteta has struggled.
Had Arsene Wenger afforded Arteta more rest in the past two seasons, perhaps his body would be holding up better to the strain. However, he appears to have been drained of his resources. Arteta now looks almost as lifeless as Arsenal’s title challenge.
He’s far from finished. Used more sparingly, he can still be an effective squad player. His leadership qualities are invaluable to Arsenal.
However, come the summer, Wenger must look for some fresh legs to supplement the Arsenal midfield. Arteta needs the breather, and the team needs the energy boost.