LONDON (Reuters) - Having proved the doubters wrong in maintaining a title charge in one of the tightest Premier League seasons in years, Arsenal must steady the ship, and quickly, if they are to keep alive hopes of winning a first trophy since 2004.
Arsene Wenger's side had earned plenty of plaudits for their measly defence and canny midfield, and an ability to get results from tough matches where in previous campaigns they may have fallen short.
However, much of the good work was undone in 20 mad-cap minutes at Anfield on Saturday, where strikes by Martin Skrtel (2), Raheem Sterling and Daniel Sturridge set Liverpool on their way to a remarkable 5-1 victory that boosted their own hopes of a top-four finish.
Manchester City's failure to beat Norwich meant Arsenal dropped only one place to second behind Chelsea, but the scars from what can only be described as a hiding may run much deeper.
The Gunners face league clashes with Manchester United, Tottenham Hotspur, Chelsea and City before the end of March, a rematch with their Liverpool tormenters in the FA Cup fifth round and a Champions League assignment against holders Bayern Munich.
Wenger will need to convince his players that the performance was a one-off, rather than the start of a longer-term malaise.
"What is important is that we respond to the result, especially that we respond with a different performance because our performance overall was poor today - on the concentration level and on the pace," the Frenchman told reporters.
"Our defensive stability was very poor, we looked always vulnerable defensively."
Centre backs Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny had drawn praise for a streak of 32 matches without defeat when they both completed 90 minutes, but they looked anything but solid as they were repeatedly exposed by a tide of red shirts led by Sterling and Sturridge.
Fullbacks Nacho Monreal and Bacary Sagna struggled with the guile of Luis Suarez, and Arsenal's midfield was unable to produce anything of note as they were frequently left on the back foot by the industry of Jordan Henderson and Philippe Coutinho.
Record-signing Mesut Ozil looked disinterested once the rout started and Jack Wilshere was off the pace after returning from an ankle injury.
The manner of the defeat inevitably raised questions about Arsenal's hopes of ending their long silverware drought, but Wenger pointed to their recovery after losing 6-3 to Manchester City in mid-December.
They then picked up six wins and two draws from their next eight league matches, a run that came to a shuddering halt on Saturday.
"Yes, I understand with you completely but it's not about what people say, it's how we respond that matters. I can completely understand that people will raise questions. We only have one way to respond answer that - which is on Wednesday night (against Manchester United)."
(Reporting by Josh Reich, editing by Ed Osmond)