Thursday, February 29, 2024

Arsenal 2-1 Wolves: Celebration cake is delicious

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The normal course of a match recap is start at the beginning and work from there, but what we saw last night demands something a bit different. The explosion of noise that greeted the ball hitting the back of the net in the 6th minute of injury time felt like a huge moment in our season. It may not turn out to be that way – there’s still a lot of football to play – but the eruption when Alexandre Lacazette scored (I think it’s so officious to put this down as an own goal) signified jubilation at the late, late win, but there was something extra on top.

That it came so very late was down in no small part to Wolves time-wasting efforts, which began in the second half. I’m not going to criticise it because we’ve done it too, but if you live by the sword and then die by the sword, people are entitled to have a good laugh at the sword. The Wolves sword is covered in Wolves blood and guts this morning, and it’s quite funny indeed.

I have say that despite frustration with Lacazette’s overall performance, I was so happy for him that he brought about the winner – even if he wasn’t credited with it. I can’t fault his workrate, but in almost every other aspect of his game he had a bit of a stinker. The hold-up play wasn’t as tight as it should be; the lay-offs weren’t good; and the shooting – while plentiful in volume – wasn’t at all precise. I think if we’d had another senior option on the bench he wouldn’t have made those final few minutes at all.

But there he was when Bukayo Saka’s shot was saved and we kept it alive on the right hand side. Martin Odegaard was involved – as he was with much of anything good we did last night – Lacazette combined well with him, then Pepe played it into his path and while the finish wasn’t exactly emphatic the ball ended up exactly where it needed to. Sometimes when you’re a striker struggling for goals, you just need one to go in somehow. Off your arse. A deflection. Whatever. While it is officially credited as a Jose Sa own goal, it shouldn’t feel like that to Lacazette. We all know the striker situation is imperfect, to say the least, but that kind of contribution might be just what he needed. His celebrations told you how much it meant to him, above and beyond the sheer delight of scoring such a last-gasp winner.

A few minutes earlier Nicolas Pepe, off the bench to replace Cedric (shades of Arsene in that substitution from Mikel Arteta) had drawn us level. Odegaard’s ball over the top was beautifully dealt with by fellow sub Eddie Nketiah, and his lay off saw the Ivorian produce a superb turn and finish from close range with plenty of Wolves men around him. Second half of the season Pepe is a different Pepe. I don’t know how we convince him that August is January if he’s still around next season, but we should try.

Until that moment though, it had been frustrating, not least because of a very poor start to the game. Once more, officiating cost us – I don’t understand how Semedo clattering Martinelli in the box isn’t a penalty, and it’s increasingly exhausting feeling like you have to contend with both the opposition and the refereeing in every game. At key moments this season, we’ve been denied such clear cut decisions that would have had a significant impact on proceedings. Everton and Palace should have been down to 10 men before half-time, we should have had a spot kick last night in the opening 60 seconds. That absolutely changes the complexion of the match.

Still, the goal we gave away was very poor. Gabriel’s pass to Ramsdale was bad, Ben White wasn’t as switched on as he should have been, and to go a goal down early to a team like Wolves was exactly the game scenario we needed to avoid. They hadn’t lost a game this season when they scored first, and as we went in 1-0 down at half-time, we had to do something we’d never done before under this manager – come back to win a game with a deficit at the break (stats via @Orbinho).

It might have been worse. They had another goal ruled out for a whisker-thin offside, Jimenez had a glorious chance to make it 2-0 when he got between the centre-halves but dragged it wide, and a poor decision from Gabriel at the back saw the Mexican head inches beyond the far post. Even early in the second half, the goalscorer Hwang found himself with just the keeper to beat, but his shot squirted wide having taken the slightest deflection off Ramsdale’s undercarriage.

In terms of volume, we had far more attempts on goal, but their chances felt better than ours. Perhaps that was informed by my increasing terror that they might score again and that we’d struggle to find the back of the net, but I don’t think it’s unreasonable to say we rode our luck a little bit. However, as we know fine well from doing exactly that ourselves, when you don’t take your chances, you increase the risk of that coming back to bite you on the arse.

We kept trying to play. Thomas Partey was excellent in midfield (although shooting lessons are still necessary), Odegaard buzzed around looking for the gaps and openings his craft can make the most of – and the fact he covered more ground last night than any Arsenal player in any game this season tells you how hard he tried to make things happen. Even Granit Xhaka, who isn’t as well suited to that more advanced midfield role as he is the deeper one, played a big part in keeping us high up the pitch at key moments.

There wasn’t much else the manager could do from the bench either. The absence of Emile Smith Rowe was keenly felt in that regard, so as the game entered its final stages, it was up to those men to make something happen, and they did. Eddie’s involvement in the goal has to be a positive, I’ve covered Lacazette already, and in the end when we needed a contribution from our centre-forward(s), we got it. We needed it.

Afterwards, Mikel Arteta was clearly delighted with how his team kept going:

Winning at the end against a really good team, who – once they are ahead – are extremely difficult to beat them. I think they haven’t lost a game after going ahead since 2018, but we kept pushing. I think the attitude, the spirit, the quality the energy that the players put in, in the second-half again. To fight, to go and win the match was phenomenal. It created a great atmosphere and synergy with our fans, and it was great to win it that way.

And on the celebrations:

I encourage them to celebrate every victory. Because you can tell how difficult it is in this game to win football matches. Our supporters are the same, every time we win we should celebrate.

I don’t think games against Wolves are ever going to be grudge matches or anything like it, but after their reaction to our win a couple of weeks ago, and their official Twitter account’s po-faced nonsense about celebrating in the right way, it was always going to be mental at the end. In any circumstances winning a game that late would spark mayhem, but when you have that much injury time because they tried to waste time from the first half, not to mention all that nonsense with the late substitution which ensured those extra minutes at the end, it’s the cherry on top of the icing on the cake. And the cake was goddam delicious!


I know the stakes are lower this time around, but there were shades of the Welbeck late winner against Leicester in this one. Instead of being a point behind Wolves, we’ve got a five point lead. We’re now just a point behind Man Utd who are currently 4th, and we have two games in hand. This was a huge win, three massive points, and it’s important that we consolidate this one in our next game – not fall flat as we did back in 2016.

I’m sure the manager will be keeping their focus high and their feet on the ground, and with another gap until our next fixture, there’s plenty of time to do that. Right now though, wins like this should be enjoyed to the maximum – not just by fans, but by the players too, because nothing brings a team together as well as moments like these. You could see it at the end of the game, and if we lacked something last night, it certainly wasn’t character. It’s one of those things you can’t measure, but you always know when a team has it and when it doesn’t, and this one absolutely has it in spades.

What a win!

Right. Let’s leave it there for now. We will have a podcast for you later this morning. James isn’t around due to his stage-show endeavours, but we’ll have something for your ears around mid-morning. Until then, take it easy.

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