The Arsenal verdict: Fulham defeat shows Wenger the way forward in 2012
Gunners boss raged at red card, but the real problem is a familiar lack of defensive depth
Arsene Wenger watched the clock tick down at Craven Cottage and wondered if he would get away with it.
The Arsenal manager had negotiated the notoriously tough festive programme with his defensive resources stripped bare. Yet here were his side holding a 1-0 lead at Fulham and 15 minutes away from making it 10 points out of 12 from the festive fixtures and starting the new year by cementing a place in the top four.
It had not been pretty, Wenger would happily concur. A late winner at Villa Park, a nervy victory over QPR and the only two points dropped in the disappointing draw with Wolves. But he could live with that, especially given the wretched results of some of the other sides challenging at the top. Wenger knew it wasn’t just his defence that was stretched to breaking point. His key midfielders Alex Song and Mikel Arteta had run themselves almost empty, while the goalscoring machine that is Robin van Persie had used every ounce of energy to score 35 league goals in 2011 – how much did he have left for 2012?
It mattered not if arsenal could hang on, thought Wenger. In the following fortnight his side had just an FA Cup tie with Leeds to negotiate, and almost two weeks until the next league outing at Swansea. In the crazy melting pot of English football that almost represents a winter break.
Key players could be rested, others gradually worked back from injury. How useful would a fit Jack Wilshere or Abou Diaby been over the last month, pondered Wenger, let alone any of his four first choice full-backs.
Then, in an instant, all those plans were unravelled as a bitter wind blew off the Thames and perhaps knocked Arsenal’s season off course for good with three killer blows.
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Johan Djourou’s red card was the catalyst, and left the Gunners to survive the final 12 minutes plus injury time a man down.
Wenger knew then his side were in trouble. Fulham had already proved a handful and now they sensed Arsenal’s vulnerability and went for the kill. Once Steve Sidwell had equalised, there was still a point to cling to, that would have to suffice, not a disaster by any stretch of the imagination.
But there was no consolation after Bobby Zamora’s winner, inadvertently set up by a quite terrible header from Sebastien Squillaci, the last defender Wenger had left to turn to after Djourou’s dismissal.
Wenger was left desolate, to vent his fury at referee and opposition, conjuring up events in his mind to cover the inevitable truth that his Christmas gamble had failed to pay off. At the very last, Arsenal were found wanting, and not for the first time in recent memory.
Unlike at Wembley last February, this injury-time aberration will not cost Arsenal a trophy. But it has halted a promising recovery from the defeat at Manchester City, and lost momentum in what is looking like a real dogfight for top-four places.
Arsenal are certainly not out of that race, but Chelsea, Spurs and Liverpool are all going to last the distance. Arsenal must match them, and for that to happen Wenger must either get some defenders back from injury or bring in reinforcements this month.
Eight different players have now turned out at left-back for Arsenal this season, including Armand Traore who followed Gael Clichy out of the Emirates exit door two days after an abysmal display in the 8-2 defeat at Old Trafford.
“I have lost three left-backs and two right-backs, I can’t go out and buy 10 full-backs,” said an exasperated Wenger at Craven Cottage. True enough, but nobody is asking for 10, one will suffice.
Whether that could be on a short-term loan or a permanent move is debatable, and Bacary Sagna should be back before the end of the month.
However before then Arsenal face a tough trip to Swansea and then the small matter of Manchester United at the Emirates on January 22.
Six Premier League defeats in 20 games is already a worrying statistic. Eight from 22 would be a whole lot worse but unless defensive resources are replenished soon, it is not an unrealistic prospect.
Bringing in Thierry Henry on a short-term loan will certainly dominate the media glare in the next week or so, but Arsenal have more pressing need elsewhere. Wenger’s mini ‘winter break’ will now be spent trying to find a solution to that problem, and not mulling over those last 15 minutes at Craven Cottage.