Come May, this may not seem such a calamitous result for Arsenal. Fulham have the look of a side who are going to be tough opposition at Craven Cottage. On Saturday night, however, Martin Atkinson's final whistle sounded like a bell tolling for Arsène Wenger's young side.
Last season Arsenal lost only three matches and still finished four points behind Manchester United, the champions. "We are playing catch-up already," said Wenger on Saturday.
Yet it was not the defeats which ruined Arsenal's title tilt last season, it was the 11 draws, five of them at home. United lost five games. That suggests Arsenal have more room for error than might be imagined but they cannot, however, afford to be without Cesc Fabregas for long. With Alex Hleb gone and Tomas Rosicky, as usual, injured, the young Spaniard's creativity has been badly missed so far in this embryonic season.
This is Arsenal's Achilles heel. Liverpool rely heavily on Fernando Torres but the rest of their spine – Pepe Reina, Jamie Carragher and Steven Gerrard – are also key figures. Manchester United look to Cristiano Ronaldo, but they have other attacking talents too. Chelsea now have so many leading players there is even cover for Frank Lampard, Didier Drogba and John Terry. Arsenal, though, look a wan side without Fabregas. They are also strongly dependent on Emmanuel Adebayor recapturing the form of last year. Put simply, there appears a lack of depth in the most crucial positions.
Equally worrying for Wenger, and to judge from his mood far more infuriating, was an apparent lack of desire. As he told The Independent on Saturday, a fundamental aspect of his emphasis on young players is the creation of a powerful team spirit. Yet his brothers in arms were bested by a collection of strangers. Six of Fulham's 14 made home debuts and only Jimmy Bullard had arrived at the Cottage prior to 2007.
"I believe they wanted it a bit more than us in the first half," said Wenger. "When you want to play at the top you must start the game with the right attitude and personality. Fulham started stronger and were sharper. The corner showed that we were not sharp enough. The mistake we made on the corner is not excusable."
While Denilson could have been braver in defending that pivotal corner, the main target of Wenger's ire will be William Gallas. The way he was beaten to Bullard's cross by a lunging foot from the giant Norwegian Brede Hangeland raised doubts about his suitability as captain.
Adebayor, who headed against the post a minute after Fulham scored, but was otherwise largely contained by Hangeland, suggested the result might provide the kick up the backside the team need, having won without playing well against FC Twente and West Bromwich Albion.
"Losing so early in the season puts extra pressure on us," he said, "but I also think it is the best warning that we can be given. We can't think we are untouchable. I hope we have learnt a lot of things during this defeat. If we want to challenge we cannot afford to lose again. We have to put more heart in, keep focused and play our football.
"As soon as we don't play together, as soon as we don't put our spirit together, we can lose the game. That was the case today. So these are the things we have to put together. Once we do we have no reason to lose a game. We have lost and now we have something to prove. We have to show character and personality, and get back our confidence."
Confidence flowed through the Fulham team, the previous week's defeat at Hull failing to diminish the lift provided by last year's late escape act and the flood of new signings. "We are more confident," said Hangeland.
"The manager has bought some cracking players and we're looking like a good squad," added Bullard.
Yet for all Roy Hodgson's summer signings, Fulham's game revolved around the same Danny Murphy-Bullard midfield axis which secured their improbable survival last season. The duo controlled midfield and had Andrew Johnson been fit Fulham could have won by more. As it was Hodgson had to pair Bobby Zamora, who led the line well but appears short of belief in front of goal, and Ki-Hyeon Seol, who looks no better at centre-forward than he did on the wing.
It mattered not. With Hangeland marshalling the back four and Mark Schwarzer radiating calm from between the sticks, one goal was enough.
"I saw two Fulhams to be pleased with," said Hodgson. "The Fulham who can play with composure, pass well and be organised. And the Fulham who can defend with their backs to the wall."
Wenger would like to see a return of the other Arsenal, the one whose football bedazzles opponents and spectators alike, and whose resolution secures victories.
Goal: Hangeland (21) 1-0.
Fulham (4-4-2): Schwarzer; Pantsil, Hughes, Hangeland, Kallio (Baird, 73); Davies, Bullard, Murphy (Adranik, 80), Gera; Zamora, Seol (Dempsey, 76). Substitutes not used: Stockdale (gk), Nevland, Stoor, Milsom.
Arsenal (4-4-1-1): Almunia; Sagna, Touré (Song, 76), Gallas, Clichy; Walcott (Bendtner, 65), Eboué, Denilson, Nasri; Van Persie; Adebayor. Substitutes not used: Fabianski (gk) Ramsey, Wilshere, Djourou, Gibbs.
Referee: M Atkinson (West Yorkshire).
Booked: Fulham Murphy, Adranik.
Man of the match: Murphy.
Attendance: 25,276.Reuse content