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Wenger demands major improvement from Arsenal

SoccerNews in English Premier League 24 Aug 2008

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Arsene Wenger demanded a “big improvement” from Arsenal after watching their title challenge suffer an early knock in a 1-0 defeat at Fulham on Saturday.

The Gunners were out-muscled and out-manoeuvred by their London rivals, who secured their win thanks to Brede Hangeland's 21st-minute goal, bundled in from Jimmy Bullard's corner, and Wenger was unusually scathing of their efforts in the post-match inquest.

Arsenal will barely have time to lick their wounds before Wednesday's Champions League qualifier second leg against FC Twente but Wenger ordered his chastened players to make a statement of intent against the Dutch, who trail 2-0 from the first game in Holland.

“We are playing catch-up now because we have lost this game but we have to cope and bounce back in the next game on Wednesday,” Wenger said.

“We need a top class performance then because today was simply not good enough.

“It's a disappointment. Fulham started stronger than us and they were sharper, especially in the first half. They didn't create many chances if you look at the whole game but they took advantage from a corner.

“We tried to come back but we were too nervous in the last 25 minutes. We didn't keep calm in and around the box.”

Defeat emphasised the lack of depth in Arsenal's squad, particularly in midfield.

Denilson and Emmanuel Eboue were over-run by Fulham's dynamic pair of Bullard and Danny Murphy and while Wenger is hoping Cesc Fabregas will have recovered from a hamstring strain to feature against FC Twente, he will still intensify his efforts to sign a new midfielder before the end of the transfer window.

The Frenchman confirmed last week that he is still interested in securing Gareth Barry from Aston Villa, while Xabi Alonso and Gokan Inler remain long-standing targets, although this limp display suggests more muscle is needed in the side's engine-room.

Wenger rejected that notion, although he conceded that Fulham made his team pay for a lack of experience.

“This was not just down to physical strength,” he said.

“We lacked a bit more quality in our passing than normal and if you look at how much possession we had, that shows that technical quality is important as well.

“Fulham have a good midfield and we weren't at our best today. The passing was not as good as it could be today, either, and that applied to every area.

“We couldn't afford a mistake in a game like this. If we had gone to half-time 0-0, I believe we would have won the game.

“You always regret matches where you're not at your best, of course, but now we need to bounce back.”

For Roy Hodgson, this was a triumph as surprising as it was deserved and arguably the Fulham's manager most impressive single result since returning to English football last year.

The Cottagers might even have added to Hangeland's goal, but Bobby Zamora flashed one effort over the crossbar at the near post and then Clint Dempsey dithered over setting up two unmarked team-mates as Arsenal were caught short at the back in stoppage time.

Even so, this was a notable success which suggests that Fulham should feel bullish at avoiding a second consecutive relegation battle, even if Hodgson claimed there was no great secret to their triumph.

“I don't really go in for game-plans – we just set out to enjoy ourselves and to play,” he said. “We doubled up when they had the ball in order to squeeze their space. And when we were attacking, we wanted to be as up tempo and quick with our passing and movement as Arsenal normally are.

“Overall we played very well. We were a bit guilty of clinging on to the lead and changing our play but that's not criticism. I've seen two aspects of Fulham in this match – the one that can play and the one that can fight. Both will be very useful over the course of a long hard season.”

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