A second half brace from Martin Ødegaard was just what the doctor ordered for Arsenal to lift the club to a 2-0 win at Wolves and send the Gunners into the World Cup break five points clear at the top of the Premier League table. It was an impressive second 45 from Mikel Arteta’s squad after an opening stanza where Wolves’ defensive shape and discipline stymied the Arsenal attack, and everything looked just a bit off.
You can chalk some of that up to the weirdness of this match coming so close to the World Cup — guys looked a bit hesitant to go all out at times. Some of it is down to Granit Xhaka being forced off after just 15 minutes with a stomach problem, confirmed by Mikel Arteta after the match. The early, unplanned change put Arsenal off. And we’d be remiss to not credit Wolves, too. They play organized, stubborn defense.
Arsenal were nearly the architects of their own downfall a handful of times in the first half, gifting Wolves counterattacking opportunities with loose touches and poor passes. It wasn’t even that the home side were making fantastic defensive plays. They sat back, stayed in formation, and waited for the Gunners to make a mistake. To Arsenal’s credit, they defended the counters well, and Aaron Ramsdale wasn’t forced into any difficult saves. But you’d rather they avoid the anxiety-inducing moments altogether.
The Gunners looked a completely different team in the second half. They were much more secure on the ball and overloaded the wide areas to create space and mismatches. The first goal came because they had three attackers, Gabriel Martinelli, Gabriel Jesus, and Fabio Vieira on the left against two Wolves defenders. Jesus cut inside on the ball and slipped a fabulous disguised pass for Vieira, who deftly chipped it over Jose Sa and across the face for Martin Ødegaard to put into the empty net.
Ødegaard sealed the points for the Gunners 20 minutes later after Martinelli outworked 19-year old substitute left back Dexter Lembikissa in the left corner. The Brazilian cleverly backheeled it to Alex Zinchenko, who took his time to pick out a cross instead of lumping into the box. Even though the cross didn’t connect, it created chaos in the area, and Ødegaard got on the end of the bouncing ball to fire home.
It was not the cleanest, prettiest game by any stretch, but Arsenal did more than enough to win. It was the type of away performance you have to have if you really want to have a shot at the title. You can’t drop points to the team at the absolute bottom of the table.
Among those not playing up to their usual level were the Arsenal centerbacks. William Saliba nearly cost Arsenal in the first half with an awful backpass for Aaron Ramsdale (at Mikel Arteta’s instruction from the sideline, mind you) that forced Gabriel Magalhaes to sprint across to put a block in. In the second half, Saliba covered for Gabriel after the Brazilian got beat pretty badly by Goncalo Guedes.
That’s what so great about the Arsenal centerbacks, and the defense as a whole. They’re almost always in position to cover for each other when one makes a mistake, and they’ve got the defensive chops to make the necessary play when called upon. Mikel Arteta’s system asks the defenders, especially the centerbacks, to do a lot of individual defending. It leaves them as the only two on an island quite often, and so far this season, they’ve handled it brilliantly.
I’m trying hard not to get ahead of myself this season, but every Arsenal win makes that more difficult. I still think that Manchester City should be the favorites to win the Premier League. Arsenal have had the easiest schedule of any club thus far (but City and Newcastle are not far behind them in that respect).
But every club on 37 points through 14 matches has gone on to win the Premier League.
None of those clubs were competing with the on- and off-field (read: financial) might of Manchester City. None of those seasons had a weird 5-week World Cup break in the middle. They didn’t come in the ultra-competitive environment that is the current Premier League where any team can beat you if you have an off day. There are plenty of reasons why Arsenal won’t do it.
But maybe they will. Either way, I’m thoroughly enjoying the ride and will enjoy it all season long. It’s the first time since 2007-08 Arsenal will be top of the table at Christmas. It’s the best start to a Premier League season in club history. I wrote it all of last year, and it rings even more true this season: there is something special about this bunch. They’ve got magic about them.