ARSENE WENGER is in unchartered territory and it’s clear the Arsenal manager is finding life uncomfortable.
Just three months ago the Frenchman was able to talk confidently about challenging for four trophies and restate his belief that his current crop of young players could rewrite the club’s history books.
Then the roof caved in on Arsenal’s season and while Theo Walcott’s late equaliser spared Wenger from being forced to explain a final day defeat against a Fulham side reduced to 10 men following the 74th-minute dismissal of Zoltan Gera, there was no escaping harsh truths.
The evidence was there before Wenger’s eyes. Two more defensive lapses meant the Gunners were twice forced to come from behind and if the manager wasn’t convinced that highlighted the need to bring in new faces this summer, the travelling supporters certainly let him know.
The loudest chants of the day were those urging the parsimonious manager to spend freely this summer and reflecting on the game afterwards, Wenger agreed.
Realistically, a draw was never going to be enough to lift Arsenal above Manchester City and back into third place and anyway, City’s victory at Bolton rendered the outcome of this game academic.
Now, instead of challenging for the title, Arsenal have been left grateful for finishing fourth and the most tangible evidence of their failure will come when they line up against potentially tricky opposition in a Champions League qualifying tie at the very start of next season.
Fulham are likely to face a similarly early start. The draw meant they finished eighth but more relevant is their standing in the Fair Play table, headed by Tottenham, who booked their place in the Europa League by virtue of finishing fifth.
That means the additional European place will go to the team that lies behind Spurs in the good behaviour standings and Gera’s sending off is unlikely to knock Fulham from second place.
Fulham will learn their fate on Friday, but Hughes is expecting a June 30 start to his side’s next campaign.
Hughes will embrace the opportunity, viewing European football as a bonus. For Arsenal it is a necessity and if they are going to maintain their residency in the Champions League, Wenger knows there are gaps that must be plugged.
The decline was only concluded on the final day, but problems are rooted more deeply and seeing Fulham carve open the visitors’ defence in the 26th minute — Bobby Zamora was allowed far too much time to tee up Steve Sidwell — was a reminder of the weaknesses that have plagued their season.
Robin van Persie levelled with an excellent finish three minutes later but the defence again went missing when Zamora headed home from Jonathan Greening’s left-wing cross in the 57th minute.
Gera’s brief contribution should have shifted the momentum back Arsenal’s way but while his two-footed lunge on Thomas Vermaelen three minutes after the Hungarian had appeared as a substitute was deserving of a red card, the Gunners’ response was unconvincing.
Gera is adamant he wants to leave Craven Cottage, although Hughes hasn’t given up hope of persuading him to stay. If he does go, this was the worst possible way to say goodbye.
Fulham have improved significantly under Hughes as the season has gone on and the principles of good, solid team building could usefully be applied at the Emirates Stadium.
Centre-back Brede Hangeland and keeper Mark Schwarzer, both one-time Arsenal targets, impressed and would have strengthened the visitors’ line-up considerably.
Walcott offered a glimpse of the gap in quality between good teams and top four teams when he burst in from the right flank and placed an excellent low shot beyond Schwarzer but, like so many of Arsenal’s players, the winger has failed to deliver consistently.
Wenger’s response this summer will be critical.
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