Arsenal beat Wolves 2-1 at the Emirates to go four points clear at the top of the Premier League table. The Gunners were fantastic in the first half and probably should have put the match away with a few more goals. Instead, they played a casual, somewhat sloppy second half, gifted the visitors a goal with a terrible Oleksandr Zinchenko mistake late, and had to sweat out the result.
It’s an all-too-familiar script for Arsenal, one that stretches back to last season. Too often, the Gunners don’t put teams away when in control of matches and that failure comes back to haunt them late in matches. It didn’t cost them points today. But it has in the past and will in the future if they don’t put a stop to it.
In a departure from that usual script, Arsenal had the chances to put the game to bed. They just didn’t take them. Gabriel Martinelli hit the post in the first half. Gabriel Jesus took a weak shot for the far post when it looked as if cutting back to Declan Rice might have been the better option. Martin Ødegaard put Leandro Trossard and Eddie Nketiah in, but neither scored. Trossard was closed down by defenders and the keeper, forcing him into a weak shot. Nketiah hit the post.
Arsenal weren’t given a penalty early in the second half for what looked like a clear pullback foul on Gabriel Jesus. He was behind Max Kilman and the Wolves defender definitely grabbed his wrist, preventing him from getting his head to a cross for what would have been an excellent chance. It’s not clear why the penalty wasn’t given. My best guess is that it wasn’t a “clear and obvious error” not to give the penalty on the field, another instance of that completely meaningless phrase preventing the “right” call (at least in my opinion) being made. Kilman is doubly lucky. Arsenal taking a 3-0 lead would have killed the game, and he probably would have been sent off. Pulling an opponent is not an attempt to play the ball, and it was definitely a clear goal-scoring opportunity.
Before that incident (and stretching back to the end of the first half), Arsenal’s play had gotten loose and sloppy. David Raya was forced into making an excellent play right at the end of the opening 45, coming off his line quickly but under control to deny Hwang Hee-chan (who did not cover himself in glory with his frequent diving) after Zinchenko had a poor touch. I was particularly incensed that Hwang got William Saliba booked, the defender’s first caution in more than a year. It was an extremely soft yellow card.
We got the full Oleksandr Zinchenko experience today. He was magnificent when Arsenal had the ball and a main reason the attack was humming. He was too casual on the ball in his own half and got caught out, including a poor giveaway that gifted Wolves a goal.
We shouldn’t let the shaky end to the game take away from the magnificent performance for most of the first half. Arsenal were dominant for the opening 30-35 minutes, shredding Wolves’ defense into rivets and scoring two exquisite goals. The first came off a lovely piece of interplay between Bukayo Saka and Gabriel Jesus, with an assist from Takehiro Tomiyasu, who unfortunately left the match in the second half with what appeared to be a calf problem, hopefully not a serious one. After the match, Mikel Arteta said it was fatigue and that he came off as a precaution.
The Arsenal second goal was probably the team goal of the season in the Premier League. Declan Rice pinged a ball from left to right to Bukayo Saka. Saka’s cross fell to Zinchenko on the edge of the box. The Ukrainian combined with Gabriel Jesus on a lovely one-two and picked out Martin Ødegaard with his cutback. The Arsenal captain hammered home. You could tell from the Arsenal players’ reactions that they knew they’d just scored a top class goal.
It would appear that the Arsenal attack is back. It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, honestly. Martin Ødegaard spent the opening part of the season nursing a hip injury. Gabriel Jesus was missing for a good chunk of time. Now that the key pieces are back healthy and at match fitness, the attack looks much better. It helps that Wolves (and RC Lens before them) set up to attempt to play football instead of packing their entire team into the final 30 yards of the pitch, too.
Ødegaard and Jesus were fantastic today, as were Gabriel Martinelli and Bukayo Saka. Leandro Trossard played from a bit deeper and did really well to help link up the play. He also was strong when Arsenal didn’t have the ball. Trossard’s defensive play isn’t his best quality, so it was nice to see him have a particularly good performance in that respect.
Today’s performance and result has a strange feel to it. You’re pleased with the early dominance and the resurgent attack. You’re displeased the sloppy, casual play reared it’s head again. It feels as if Arsenal should have won by 3 or 4 goals. Instead, they had to sweat out the result at the end, entirely of their own making.
But three points is three points. Arsenal are four points clear at the top of the Premier League table with Manchester City and Liverpool still to play this weekend. The Gunners travel to Luton Town on Tuesday.