LONDON // Arsenal may have clinched third place and automatic qualification for the Champions League with this comprehensive victory over Fulham, but the reasons why they have fallen away in the title race were still plain to see. An Arsenal side missing a number of first-choice players due to injury? Check. A hesitant, unconfident goalkeeper inducing panic every time the ball went near him? Of course.
An astonishing profligacy in front of goal? It goes without saying. Granted, early strikes from Andrey Arshavin and Robin van Persie, with Chris Baird scoring an own goal before half-time and Carlos Vela adding a late fourth, were always going to be enough against a weakened Fulham side that understandably had one eye on Wednesday's Europa League final against Atletico Madrid. But this season will go down as a case of what might have been. However, third place was never in doubt from the moment when Arshavin robbed Mark Schwarzer of the ball to slide home after 21 minutes, with Van Persie knocking in the rebound six minutes later, after the Australian keeper had tipped his initial effort onto the cross bar.
Indeed, Van Persie's ankle injury back in November appears ever more decisive now that the Dutchman is back and scoring goals. Van Persie, Arshavin, Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri have missed 55 Premier League games between them this season, which is far too many for a club who do not have the strength in depth of their rivals. That was shown in devastating fashion by Arsenal's results against the other top sides. Home and away losses to both Chelsea and Manchester United, combined with away defeats to both Tottenham and Manchester City, proved decisive in the end.
And Van Persie was brutally honest about his side's shortcomings in an interview in the club's match day programme. "I just think we need to toughen up," said the Dutchman. "We need to make it clear to people: 'if you want to play football, we can play football. If you want to play hard, we can play hard.' We can do that, we have it in ourselves, but we need to do it consistently. "We need a bit of help in a few areas. Everyone knows where we are going wrong."
Wenger, though, launched a passionate defence of his side. "If you look a long way back we have gone beyond expectation," he said. "Of course we are still frustrated because a month ago we were still in touch with the championship and didn't win it. "We conceded too many goals and didn't have the players available, but I'm very happy that we don't have to play a qualifier [to reach the Champions League group stage] because it is a sensitive game and they are getting harder every year."
And Wenger is spot on with the criticism of his side's defence, with the hosts' goalkeeper Lukasz Fabianski flapping at three crosses here, just as Manuel Almunia has done all season. The Pole was actually fortunate to still be on the pitch by the end, having been booked for deliberate handball outside the area. His time at Arsenal must surely be at an end. His opposite number had already had his nightmare moment by then, though, with Van Persie making it two before Baird turned Theo Walcott's deflected cross into his own net and Vela chipping home delightfully to make it four.
It was a disappointing way for Fulham to end their domestic campaign - "we just didn't have enough in our locker to beat a good Arsenal team," admitted their manager Roy Hodgson - but they have still had a superb season, and will look to end it with their first major trophy on Wednesday. For Arsenal, though, they know that a wonderful opportunity has been missed due to failings that are all too familiar.