As much as Wolves have impressed under Nuno Espirito Santo – a man on a certain shortlist in the not too distant past – we played with the kind of control that we’ve been so dearly missing. 2-0 away to Wolves is a statement; that while we may be a club in transition, we still have some bite.
Transition by the numbers:
- 7 clean sheets in 16 league games under Arteta (10 in 38 last season)
- Emery (and Freddie) P17 W5 D7 L5 F24 A28 GD-4
- Arteta P16 W7 D6 L3 F25 A13 GD+12
- Only team to win at Wolves this season with a clean sheet
- Prior to this game, Wolves ranked 1st (in the last 8 games) for shots conceded, goals conceded and clean sheets
- Lacazette’s first away goal in 18 hours and 43 minutes of domestic football
- Saka is the youngest Englishman to score an away league goal for Arsenal since Stewart Robson did so against Everton in March 1983
It was the most “realistic” test since the restart, in the sense that Wolves are a team we’re in realistic competition with. When Arteta was appointed, there was little in the way of expectations to actually achieve something this season and while we may yet sneak into Europe, we’re beginning to see the kind of development the team has been crying out for.
It still took some time for Arteta’s gameplan to come to fruition; save the last 10 minutes of the first half, it was quite a cagey and slow affair (sometimes known as “boring”, but I actually like games where teams are evenly matched). It wasn’t helped by Wolves’ meticulous organisation and you could easily see why they have such a strong defensive record. While neither side troubled the opposition keeper much, Arsenal at least had the biggest sight of goal with Eddie’s half chance.
While he drew criticism for failing to shoot across goal from the bonafide football royalty that is… Jamie Redknapp, I thought it was a fantastic first-time effort and it very nearly snuck in. It was the sort of attempt you want your striker to be making, especially in such closely-contested matches and the effort was equal in maturity to the rest of Eddie’s performance. He was tenacious until he made way for Lacazette and almost added another in the second half with a well won header. For someone who appears “slight”, he’s got some fight in him and already seems up to the task of the Premier League’s physical demands. It’s also a safe bet that he’ll toughen up some more in the next few years, given his age.
This flash point was also the beginning of our strong end to the half, and of course it fell to the man of the moment. I’ve watched this back about 10 or 15 times already because there’s so much to like about it. While the cross-field ball from Soares was a bit fortuitous to make its way to Aubameyang, there was nothing fortuitous about his no-look pass to the overlapping Tierney and while his cross did take a deflection, he seems to have a real eye for picking people out in the box or at the very least, hitting the ball into the right areas – it’s a welcome change to the “hit and hope” we often see from Kolasinac. Saka reacted quickest to the deflection but even on his strong foot, there was still a lot to do with the ball behind him.
The caressed half volley he treated us to reminded me of Pavard’s World Cup goal against Argentina, for the way it seemed to lack power but just spins beyond the reach of the keeper. It was a great finish and despite a quiet half of adjustment to life on the right wing with several fumbles and hiccups, Saka’s quality shone through. Well worth the £40k per week he’s now earning.
There was always going to be some bite from Wolves and while they had their moments, a mixture of squandering from the likes of Traoré and actually competent defending went a long way in limiting their chances to a single shot on target, which if I’m not mistaken, was well blocked my David Luiz rather than even having to trouble Martinez. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that we’re having more success with a back three anchored by Luiz given his history with the formation, but it’s another thing to actually make it work.
The double pivot in front of them – which I’m now going to coin the “Redemption Duo” – also deserves credit for applying the kind of tempo we needed. Xhaka continued his fine form under Arteta, while Ceballos covered some serious ground and continues to ask questions about his eligibility for a permanent move.
Wolves are a second half team – a reputation they again lived up to – and while Arteta drew criticism in the early days of his managerial career for some lacklustre substitutions, he nailed every single one of them on this occasion. It’s also worth mentioning that he’s still in his early days, so the speed at which he’s adapting really bodes well.
AMN’s introduction in a setting we haven’t seen for a while really made a difference. While Traoré’s often been used as a substitute, starting the game and having the lion’s share of Wolves’ opportunities was likely a factor in Arteta looking to tighten things up, especially given the heavy workload Tierney has had since the restart. While we have seen it in the past, I really wasn’t anticipating AMN to come into the game – at left back – and put in such a performance.
I’ve spoken before about my sympathies for him not wanting to play at right back and having aspirations to play elsewhere, but I’ve been wondering if the likes of Saka coming through and saying he’s happy to play anywhere have had an effect. AMN is by no means a senior player in the team but for someone of Saka’s age to come into the team and already be showing signs of maturity and humility, it may just have given him a healthy reality check.
As we weathered the storm (more of a light breeze) from Wolves, we actually began to grow into the game again, rising to the challenge of their combatative approach that was so kindly overlooked by Michael Oliver, with some dogged game management. It felt like we were “seeing the game out”; not in the desperate sense we’d grown accustomed to under Emery, but more in the “let’s keep the ball and take our time”, reassuring kind of way.
Within 10 and 3 minutes respectively of Willock and Lacazette’s introduction, they’d combined brilliantly to really turn the screw. I don’t know how he does it, but Mustafi’s gazelle-like leap sent the ball sailing deep into Wolves’ half and found Lacazette. He brought it down well and laid it off to Willock before doing what all good strikers do by pressing forward. Willock was more than happy to saunter forward, largely unchecked and picked out a Lacazette we’ve not seen much of lately. Like a phoenix from the ashes, he found that furloughed half yard and first touch and had the finish to match. The whole move was direct and clinical, and only involved two Arsenal players against the entire Wolves back line. If not for a goal line clearance moments later, Willock would’ve added the gloss that we perhaps deserved, after a patient and controlled performance.
Torreira’s introduction was also a crucial step in shoring us up at the other end, as he barely skipped a beat in getting back to what he does best.
It’s the first time in LIVING MEMORY that I’ve not been worried about our ability to close the game out – especially away. You could just sense some confidence and unity that we’ve so often been missing; for every player, even those on the bench, to be willing and able to make a difference.
I’m still not going to talk about our league position, but I will laugh at Spurs’ Spursiness at the hands of Sheffield United and will say that I can’t wait for the North London derby that’s almost upon us (we’ve got Leicester up first). Arteta knows what it means and I’m sure the prospect of putting another nail in Mourinho’s coffin is an enticing one. It’s also our first game at the toilet bowl and I’m equally sure we’ll be wanting to give it a good christening.
Sources: @DailyCannon, @HarveyDownes, @Orbinho