Monday, May 20, 2024

Wolves 0-2 Arsenal: Tense, but impressive

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Arsenal went back to the top of the Premier League last night with a 2-0 win away at Wolves. Maybe it wasn’t the best performance of the season, but at this point it’s so much more about getting it done, not how you get it done.

To be fair though, the fact it was 1-0 right until the death probably played a part in how we felt about the overall display. Without the cushion of another goal (or two), you’re always vulnerable to a moment that could cost you points, and that level of jeopardy unquestionably informed sentiment about how we played.

The truth is, this was a dominant Arsenal performance. Yes, it was a Wolves team without a number of key players, but we were by the far the better team from an attacking perspective:

It was really about how we’d find the breakthrough, and I think you could see that the two defeats against Villa and Bayern had an impact on the team. Not just physically, although that was obvious with one or two players in particular, but psychologically too. The final action wasn’t quite there, whether it was a shot, or a cross from the good positions we got ourselves into.

Declan Rice had a couple of goes from the edge of the box, and our right-hand side was lively with good combinations between Ben White and Bukayo Saka, but the finish wasn’t there. At the other end, there wasn’t a lot to worry about, but there was a moment of real danger when Jakub Kiwior misjudged a bouncing ball, allowing Joao Gomes to run through and shoot from a tight angle. Maybe this chance didn’t register highly on the xG charts, but it was going in and it required a brilliantly quick reaction save from David Raya. The Wolves player couldn’t believe it when you see the replay, and that tells you exactly how dangerous that situation was.

Sometimes, when you’ve had the kind of week we just had, you need a touch of good fortune, and I think we got that with the goal. Kai Havertz played a cross to the back post area when Gabriel Jesus did well to hold it up. I don’t think the lay-off to Leandro Trossard is quite what he meant, nor is the finish from the Belgian. I’m sure he meant something like that because of the way the ball was moving across him, but he sort of whiffed at it, slicing it into the top corner off the post. He said afterwards:

Not maybe the sweetest, but I knew I had a small amount of time to hit the ball and at the moment I see the ball come in front of me I had to use my toe as well to get it in and get it on target and it went in really nice. Obviously top bins so it’s really a great goal.

Perhaps I’m doing him a disservice, and to be perfectly honest, I don’t really care if that’s exactly what he meant or not. It went in, just before half-time, and that was enough to give us a 1-0 lead. I should also point out I think Wolves were very lucky to have 11 men on the pitch at that point. The challenge by Max Kilman on Havertz is a red card in my opinion, and whatever about Paul Tierney not seeing quite how serious it was in real-time, there’s no excuse for whichever gimp was on VAR. I think, given it was his standing leg, Havertz is quite fortunate not to have been badly injured here.

The second half was pretty much all Arsenal, 15 shots to Wolves 2, but the second goal, the one that would have given us peace of mind and done so much for the blood pressure of every Arsenal fan watching, just wouldn’t come. Gabriel Martinelli came on to replace Trossard, and I can’t have been alone in looking at some of the players and thinking they were missing their usual zip.

I know I’m not alone in understanding completely why that was. This has been a hard week, and the legs that feel light as a feather when you’re winning are leaden after a couple of defeats. I looked at Martin Odegaard at times and thought he was tired, verging on exhausted, and I wondered if Arteta might make a change there.

But the manager talks a lot about big players needing to be able to play every three days at a high level. He talks about resilience, and character as part of that, and in the final stages, I think we saw that from three players in particular. Saka burst into life in the last few minutes and almost scored a goal after a great run; Odegaard obviously dug deep into his reserves and nabbed the goal that secured the three points right at the death; while Rice’s last 10 minutes or so were absolutely extraordinary in the context of what we’ve been through in the last week. The way he drove with the ball, won tackles, dominated the midfield, and played a part in the second goal was outstanding.

To be honest, while those three stood out, and were emblematic of what the manager wants from players of their stature in games like these, the team effort was superb as well. Ben White’s energy and desire is off the charts, the central defensive duo were brilliant again, and even Kiwior – who had a couple of iffy moments in that first half – responded really well in the second, and had a very good 45 minutes after the break.

It can’t have been easy, but despite the intense physical demands, we just got on with it and did the job. While Pep Guardiola and his Man City PR machine bleated and moaned about how unfair it was having to play a game at the weekend, we did what we needed to do. And our schedule is more taxing than theirs. There is a wider point to be made about player welfare, of course, but maybe City players asking to be subbed in big games then Guardiola going off like he did yesterday is a sign that the machine is creaking a bit. Let’s hope so.

Mikel Arteta said afterwards:

I really liked the performance. Obviously the result and the clean sheet, but especially the way individually as a team the team has shown that they still have another step forward to make and ensure the resilience and the determination that is needed in these moments to step in and say: ‘I’m here. I’m going to make myself count and I’m going to impact the team.’

Last night was about responding to a couple of setbacks and taking three points. We did that very well, in my opinion, and now that’s history. The club’s medical staff, physios, masseuses, and so on will have a big job on their hands to prepare these players for a huge week now. It’s Chelsea on Tuesday, then a North London derby at the weekend, but this is the challenge we have to rise to. That we can do it from the top of the table is a good place to be, and let’s hope that this win has restored some lost confidence, and that those legs feel a little lighter in the games ahead.

Ok, that’s your lot for today. We’ll have an Arsecast Extra for you tomorrow, in the meantime, have a great Sunday.

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