Friday, March 1, 2024

Arsenal 2-1 Wolves: Tighter than it should have been

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Arsenal went four points clear at the top of the Premier League with a win over Wolves that was very comfortable … until it wasn’t. We were dominant but had to face a nervous final 15 minutes after a mistake at the back allowed the visitors a goal out of nothing.

The old adage about 2-0 being the most dangerous scoreline in football might be a bit of a cliche, but ask any Arsenal fan and they’ll back it right up. We’ve seen it more than once, and it was hard not to worry we weren’t going to let a couple of points slip on a day when all three should have been secured long before that error let them back into it.

We started brilliantly, Bukayo Saka combining with Gabriel Jesus and Takehiro Tomiyasu to put us ahead in the 6th minute. Mikel Arteta has spoken recently about players needing to be efficient in tight spaces, and while Wolves might feel they could have defended better, Saka’s movement is just so sharp, and he made no mistake with the finish.

Seven minutes later and the lead was doubled. Saka’s cross from the right was just too heavy, but we recycled possession, Zinchenko’s give and go with Jesus was superb – the cushioned return from the Brazilian was inch perfect – and the Ukrainian pulled it back for Martin Odegaard to sweep the ball home for 2-0. It wasn’t an easy finish either, but he made it look that way.

Early goals change the complexion of games, and after sticking five past Lens in the first half on Wednesday, you hoped we were on course to at least add another before the break. A brilliant take from an Odegaard pass saw a chance for Leandro Trossard but the keeper made a good save, Rice had a good effort deflect wide, and Gabriel Martinelli hit the post – the rebound squirting the wrong way for both Saka and Jesus.

A Zinchenko mistake required excellent defending from Martinelli who did so well to bail his teammate out, which is part of why he drew praise from his manager afterwards. It was a sign all wasn’t right defensively with the left-back though. Late in the half it should have been 3-0 when Jesus was in behind, his finish was tame – a bit like Eddie’s last weekend – but he ought to have looked up to see Rice arriving for what would have been a tap-in, and it wasn’t a difficult pass to make either.

Hesitation between William Saliba and Zinchenko caused us a major problem just before half-time, but David Raya stood up well to deny Hwang Hee-chan. Again, it was the left-back mostly at fault, he under-cooked the pass back to his keeper and we were fortunate not to have been punished.

The second half began with a penalty shout when Jesus’ arm was clearly pulled in the box as he was trying to connect with a cross. Here’s my thinking on this one: if that foul is sufficient for a Leandro Trossard goal to be chalked off by VAR when Ben White did the same thing to a goalkeeper, it’s enough for a penalty when it happens to a forward. But VAR looked and decided it wasn’t enough. What can you do?

The second half was, as I said above, comfortable. We were in control, and while I don’t think we were absolutely busting a gut to score more, I don’t think the team was as casual as some people have made out. If they felt secure with the defensive record/ability we have, I understand that. Wolves, let’s be honest, offered little in attack. We dealt with everything, Raya had one save to make early in the half and that was it. It was, for most of that half, a demonstration of Arteta’s desire to kill a game with 300,000 passes.

Let’s also not overlook the chances we had to score more. Saka curled one just over the far post. Trossard really should have done better when put through by Odegaard, and even after Mattheus Cunha got that goal back, there was a chance for Eddie Nketiah to immediately make the game safe, but he hit the post when he should have scored. When a striker is clean through like that, missing the target is bad, even if you come very close.

So, it wasn’t a collective casualness, it was mostly a casual moment from a player who had too many of them yesterday. Would Zinchenko even have been on the pitch at that point if Tomiyasu hadn’t had to go off? He’s not a player I have a lot of faith in in the late stages of a game anyway, but that mistake was in the post all day. Afterwards, Arteta said of him:

You have to love him, how he is, every player as well. He has strengths and weaknesses and Alex has got many more strengths. This happened, it can happen to any player, we have to learn from it, because in those areas it’s a big no to play especially after certain things on the previous phrase and that’s it, we will get better.

Sometimes, even if you’re playing for a manager like Mikel Arteta who demands you keep the ball, you just need to put your foot through it in defensive areas, and that was one of those moments. It made the last few minutes, with all the added time, more tense than they needed to be. Overall though, I think the performance was good, just missing some of the attacking efficiency we saw in midweek. Had it finished 4-0, I don’t think Wolves could have complained, but perhaps a reminder that you have to be more clinical and be smarter at the back isn’t a bad thing in a game when you still take all three points.

A quick word to finish for the captain who I thought was outstanding yesterday. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that two games in which we could have scored a load of goals featured him back at something close to his best. He made 6 key passes yesterday on top of the goal he scored, and he should have had a couple of assists to his name but for wayward finishing. It’s great to see that the bit of rest/time-off has recharged his batteries so well.

Right, let’s hope for mayhem in the Premier League today, although I suspect we might see Man City rack up a record win in their game later on and close the gap back to a point.

We are recording the Arsecast Extra for you early today, so keep an eye out for the call for questions on Twitter @gunnerblog and @arseblog on Twitter with the hashtag #arsecastextra – or if you’re on Arseblog Member on Patreon, leave your question in the #arsecast-extra-questions channel on our Discord server.

Podcast should be out before midday. Until then.

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