It was a far cry from the 8-2 humiliation at Old Trafford that marked rock bottom of Arsenal’s 2011/12 season, but the Gunners’ recent loss to Manchester United brought to mind similar questions to those that Arsene Wenger faced last September. After a solid start and deserved praise for their defensive improvements, the Gunners are again in a funk and facing increased scrutiny after consecutive Premier League losses to Chelsea, Norwich and Manchester United, coupled with a one-point haul from two Champions League clashes against Schalke.

It has become an annual tradition to question Wenger’s judgement and his team’s mental strength at this juncture of the season, only to feel foolish when the Frenchman steadies the ship in elegant fashion. But, once again, the top clubs are pulling away at the summit. And once again, Arsenal are going in the opposite direction. One of these years, Wenger will fail to reverse the trend. With the chasing pack growing in confidence – expected contenders Tottenham Hotspur have been joined by Everton and surprise package West Brom – the pressure to finish in the top four, and reap the benefits that come hand-in-hand, has never been more intense.

And so, January becomes a month of great intrigue, for Arsenal fans in particular. Stick or twist? Put faith in the current squad digging themselves out of the rut or roll the dice on a couple of proven signings to lead the late season charge? It is the ultimate test not just for Wenger but for the powers that be at the Emirates Stadium. With frustration growing amid concerns that turning a profit is a greater priority than winning trophies and retaining star players, supporters are understandably confused by the club’s strategy.

The fact that Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri have both enjoyed instant success since leaving North London, for Barcelona and Manchester City respectively, is a bad sign and sends a worrying message to the current Arsenal crop. If finishing in the top four is the limit of the Gunners’ ambitions, why wouldn’t big names look elsewhere? Robin van Persie might well join Fabregas and Nasri in collecting a trophy in his first season away from the Emirates. The Dutchman has been outstanding thus far, embracing life at true title contenders, and it was his early goal against his former club at Old Trafford that set the tone for the afternoon.

Theo Walcott is the likeliest name to follow the example of his former team-mates and head for the exit, perhaps as soon as the January transfer market after Wenger admitted he wants the forward’s contract issue (it is due to expire in the summer) resolved by Christmas. While Walcott is still more potential than end product, there will be a long line of suitors willing to boost his wages and give him more playing time. Manchester City are mooted as being one of the clubs ready to swoop in. Given the trend, what message does this send to Jack Wilshere, Santi Cazorla or Thomas Vermaelen? How long before they start questioning their chances of success at the club?

Adding depth to the Arsenal squad is vitally important for Wenger but there are obvious difficulties in doing business in January. Prices are hiked up, top players are ineligible for the Champions League and integrating new faces takes time. But the longer the season goes on, the bigger the gap separating Arsenal from the top three. That will leave Wenger looking nervously over his shoulder at those teams desperate to crash the top four party. There are talented contributors available if the Gunners look hard enough – Roma midfielder Daniele De Rossi, Brazilian striker Leandro Damiao, Borussia Dortmund goalscorer Robert Lewandowski, Athletic Bilbao’s Fernando Llorente or even Everton man Leon Osman – but history suggests it is a long shot, particularly given Wenger’s reaction to the 2-2 draw with Schalke in Germany, when his side surrendered a two-goal lead.

"I believe we have shown a good response to Saturday’s game and you feel the team is getting better", declared the Frenchman. "For us it was important first of all not to lose and if possible to win. We managed the first part, not the second one." Hardly the words of a man in panic mode.

Ultimately, it seems that while Arsenal can continue to claim a place in the top four – and with it the Champions League bounty – there is no obvious cause for concern from a business perspective, even if supporters are less than impressed. But as soon as that cash cow disappears, alarm bells will sound and desperate measures will be sought. On current form, that day could be closer than many realise.