There is something to be said about unbeaten streaks. Viewed optimistically, it is an indicator of a team’s fight in the face of adversity - a merit badge of grit. However, the pessimistic view point would say that there is also something to be said about an unbeaten run when it involves a string of underwhelming performances and draws from a slate of winnable games. Questions arise about a team’s ability to finish a match, as well as whether they are good or just plain lucky.
After today’s dismal draw which saw Arsenal have to dig deep to find an equalizer at the death, many are worrying that Arsenal’s unbeaten run is beginning to resemble the latter view of unbeaten runs and not the former, as Arsenal once again failed to win a league match for the third straight week.
As Arsenal near the end of the first half of the Premier League season, injuries are beginning to take their toll. After the midweek draw against Sporting CP, Arsenal saw both Stephan Lichsteiner and Danny Welbeck suffer injuries that made Arsenal’s depth chart even thinner. Fortunately Arsenal were able to field a nearly first choice starting lineup, with Sead Kolasinac starting in place of Nacho Monreal, who has been overcoming a nagging thigh injury.
Entering the match, only three teams in the entire Premier League had failed to lead at half this season. Included in that trio were both Arsenal and Wolverhampton. Unfortunately for Arsenal, only one of those two teams would finally lead at half time, and it was not the hosts.
The first half presented a frustrating performance by the Gunners, as they continued their troublesome trend of starting matches slowly. In the 7th minute, Arsenal were denied a debatable penalty shout as Alex Iwobi, after losing the ball on a run into the box, was on the receiving end of a shoulder from a Wolves defender. The referee waived the challenge off, much to the derision of the fans at the Emirates.
If you were playing Arsenal Bingo, you’d notice that the square marked “Xhaka commits an error that leads to a conceded goal” had not been filled in for quite some time. Today, though, that box was filled emphatically, as Wolverhampton capitalized on an egregious mistake by the Swiss midfielder in the 13th minute. Believing there was a teammate behind him, Xhaka failed to step to a pass headed in his direction 35 yards from Arsenal’s goal. Wolves midfielder Ivan Cavaleiro immediately intercepted the loose ball, dribbled to the edge of the box, fed it wide to a teammate, and received a low cross in front of the near post, slotting it past Bernd Leno with Granit Xhaka trailing him helplessly.
Following their opening goal, the visitors were quickly looking for a second as they peppered Leno with more shots, forcing him into a number of saves, once of which nearly ended catastrophically when a Wolves player attempted a shot on a ball that Leno was securing while diving toward the pitch, making contact with the keeper instead of the ball.
Opening goal aside, the German keeper made a convincing statement to solidify his role as Arsenal’s starter, snuffing out a number of dangerous attacks, several of them coming from one-on-one situations.
Arsenal were not without their chances in the first half, although none of them proved to be troublesome for the visitors, who threw body after body in front of the few shots Arsenal were able to manage. Alexandre Lacazette, who looked out of sorts on the day, failed to convert an excellent opportunity in front of the six yard box, opting to settle the low cross from the left side and shoot from his preferred right foot right directly at a Wolves defender instead of taking a one-time shot with his left.
The first half ended with Arsenal having over 70% possession but zero goals to show for it, a statistic that felt all-too familiar during the latter stages of the Wenger era. The passing in particular was off the mark, as each attacking build up almost inevitably ended in a wayward pass or an errant cross. Very few Arsenal players outside of Leno looked to be up for the match, with Sead Kolasinac and Granit Xhaka having particularly bad first half performances. On the whole, the team looked disjointed, tired, and uninspired.
Perhaps looking to initiate a spark in an otherwise listless side, Arsenal manager Unai Emery decided to substitute Matteo Guendouzi for Alex Iwobi as the second half began, which meant that all three of Arsenal’s defensive midfielders were on the pitch at the same time while their best dribbler was sent for an early shower.
Arsenal, whose apparent strategy this season seems to involve leaning on strong second half performances to get a result, were still struggling to find any attacking leverage. It wasn’t until the 60th minute that Arsenal began to threaten Wolverhampton’s goal, as Lucas Torreira launched a terrific shot from outside of the box, forcing Rui Patricio into a leaping save to keep the shot out of the top left corner of the goal.
Ten minutes later, Arsenal seemed to sense the urgency as their chances became more frequent. Hector Bellerin found himself in the middle of the box to receive a pass, but his attempted one-timer sailed over the bar. Three minutes after that missed opportunity, in a series that seemed to summarize Arsenal’s attack on the day, Pierre Emerick Aubameyang, a pedestrian in the match until this point, missed an absolute sitter.
In a brilliant series, Xhaka played a beautiful cross on the dribble to the top of the box, where Lucas Torreira deftly controlled it and found Bellerin streaking into the box on the far side. Bellerin received Torreira’s pass and saw Aubameyang in front of the goal mouth and sent in a pass to the Gabon striker, who one-timed the shot toward the goal with his right foot. Much like the Chelsea match, Aubameyang failed to convert a high-percentage shot as his attempt, which appeared goal bound, found the far post and deflected out of play.
At this point, it seemed apparent that it was just not going to be Arsenal’s day. Much like their draw against Crystal Palace, Arsenal could not seem to find an attacking rhythm. Then, in the 75th minute, Unai Emery made a change that turned the tide for the Gunner’s anemic attack, as he brought Aaron Ramsey and Henrick Mkhitaryan on for Mesut Ozil and Sead Kolasinac respectively.
Although the hosts were certainly beginning to look threatening as the half progressed, Wolverhampton still managed to keep Arsenal fans nervous as they pushed for an insurance goal late on. Diego Jota had two opportunities to double the visitors’ lead, but he missed a header wide and forced Leno into a low save shortly after.
In the 86th minute, Aaron Ramsey nearly equalized, as he received a ball with his chest in the 18 yard box before turning and firing blindly on goal. Patricio, however, managed to save the effort and push it out of play for a corner kick awarded to Arsenal. On the ensuing short corner, Mkhitaryan received a pass at the corner of the box and looped a curling effort goalward. Patricio, unable to assess whether the ball would be headed by an Arsenal attacker, failed come off his line to to save the effort, which bounced once before finding the far side of the net.
Despite conceding the equalizer, Wolverhampton were far from being out of the match. Adama Traore, who came on in the 75th minute, had two great opportunities to put the visitors ahead in the closing minutes. On his first attempt in the 92nd minute, he had badly beaten Rob Holding to goal in a foot race and then turned on the breaks with a delicate backheel, rendering the trailing defender into dust. With the attacker now barreling down on him unimpeded, Leno once again was forced to make a game-saving play, as he successfully got in front of Traore’s left-footed effort.
In the 94th minute, Traore again beat Rob Holding (who is now property of the Wolverhampton attacker) down the pitch. With two defenders on him, Traore dumped the ball to a teammate outside the box. Morgan Gibbs-White’s uncontested shot on goal, however, was a hair too strong. Despite beating the keeper, the shot caromed off both the crossbar and the post in the top left corner, sending the crowd at the Emirates into gasps of terror. Traore pounced on the rebound, but was deemed offsides by the line judge. Shortly after the heart-stopping sequence, the center referee mercifully blew his whistle, ending the match at 1-1.
The international break could not come at a better time. Despite their unbeaten run, it should be more concerning that Arsenal also find themselves in the midst of a winless run, especially when two of their three league draws came against opponents they should have beaten. Taking 3 points from a potential 9 is frustrating and certainly not what Arsenal should settle for if they want to reclaim their spot among the elite clubs. Arsenal look tired right now, and the injuries are also severely limiting their options for key positions. A rest is critical right now for a team that has lost their clinical ability to finish games off.
Arsenal are still within touch of the top four as they trail Tottenham by 3 points, but their next three Premier League matches come against Bournemouth, who are 4 points behind the Gunners, as well as rivals Tottenham and Manchester United. If Arsenal want to stay pace with the rest of the top clubs vying for Champions League spots, they will need to greatly improve on their current form over the next two weeks. Failure to do so could find them with a a massive gap to have to make up over the second half of the season.