This may be the difference between fourth place and frustration. Arsenal looked on the verge of defeat here even Nicolas Pepe, with his first match Premier League A goal since May, equalized Hwang Hee-chan’s early effort and at that point, consolidating fifth seemed hardly the end of the world. It would have prevented the wolves from jumping on them, at least, but it had better come. Within six minutes of injury time, Alexandre Lacazette was released through a masterful interaction between Martin Odegaard and Eddie Nketiah, which resulted in a goal attempt. The shot was off but Jose Sa, the guest goalkeeper, deflected it in with his right glove and a raft of celebrations confirmed what that meant. Mikel Arteta had promised that chasing the top four would be a rollercoaster ride but it is still firmly in Arsenal’s hands.
The horrific events in Ukraine mean football has felt few consequences in preparing for this match, but in its specific context, the repercussions for the Champions League race will be significant. Arsenal Wolves overcame Wolverhampton at Molino, but the teams were only two points separated at the start here, even if the hosts played a game more.
So, Hwang’s opening escalated the tension towards the sky. Arsenal’s defensive security has been impressive in recent months, not least when they held up with 10 men against the same opponents nearly two weeks ago, but were held back by an uncharacteristically poor foul from Gabriel Magalhaes. The centre-back was the previous game’s winner, but here, guarding a long pass down the left while Raul Jimenez is chasing, he was sloppy. A back lane attempt to Aaron Ramsdale was carried out without adequate buying or, crucially, research. In the pinched Hwang with the guard stranded and the narrow angled finishing touch made look simple.
Arsenal had already been warned when Roman Sais turned his lane past Ramsdale, and after an offside was reported, he saw the VAR review go on longer than Arteta was comfortable with. Their defense was giving up free space, and in the 13th minute, Wolverhampton should have risen twice. Jimenez was playing here for the first time since, in November 2020, he fractured his skull in a head-on collision at the end of the hour. Stealing intentionally from the start, he made use of a clever pass from Daniel Budens, who was cleverly positioned on the right inside, but pulled away when it looked like a likely target.
After getting rid of these episodes, Arsenal did not play badly. A team less skilled than Wolverhampton in congestion, blocking and rushing into the penalty area of his team would have conceded before the end of the first half. Jose Semedo presented a decisive challenge to Gabriel Martinelli in the first half-minute, while, in a high-octane wave a quarter of an hour later, Alexandre Lacazette bounced away from a tricky corner and Sais parried away brilliantly from Odegaard. Max Kellmann would have been better off denying Lacazette in the 32nd minute after Kieran Tierney took advantage of Sa’s misreading of the high ball, while Martinelli was stabbed shortly thereafter.
Emile Smith-Roe’s illness has led to Martinelli returning to the side after a one-match ban for being sent off at Wolverhampton’s home. His expulsion was among the recent calls that prompted Arteta to request a meeting with Professional Game Match Officials Limited, a request which was granted by the jury. The Emirates resented righteous indignation, a powerful tool when used well, at the slightest hint of injustice here, but there was little room for catching the interval. Sa Martinelli denied but Wolverhampton were outrageously unlucky.
The clever, diabolical Bodens fired Hwang with a superb reverse pass right after the start of the second half, but with the striker running out of space, Ramsell converted his shot wide. This was another reminder to Arsenal that Wolves’ construction can be devastatingly accurate.
Arsenal became obsolete. There was no doubt about their modus operandi, as Lacazette showed when he reverted to his own plan to fire Joao Moutinho, but Arteta’s discussions with his assistant Steve Round became increasingly urgent. When they created a sensible opener, just before the hour, Lacazette turned on Martinelli’s cross but was off target again.
Lacazette, whose night was mixed until the last minute boom, won a free kick at 22 yards after a powerful blast but later missed it. The wolves seemed self-confident, not to mention happy to run the clock when it was convenient, and weren’t under siege as the closing stages approached.
Arteta searched for an apparently uninspired array of alternative options and sought a turn from Pépé. Lacazette nearly equalized, forcing Sa to dodge, and a late storm seemed inevitable. The wolves seemed to be able to hold out until the Ivorian struck.
Its ending was brilliant, it turned and finished in one motion after downsizing from another alternate, Nketia. Chances came and went at either end with a frantic finish, Pedro Neto and Bucayo Saka coming close, but then arriving at the kind of interference that characterizes the season.