For all the defensive security Arsenal have built this season, and for all the defense provided by the brilliant Declan Rice in midfield, there is a sense that Mikel Arteta’s side are still capable of destroying their own cause. at any time.
Defensive errors are no longer as common as they once were in these parts, but they still happen – and they turn Arsenal’s games even worse.
For 86 minutes of this meeting with Wolves, Arsenal were strolling. They had a glorious arrogance at times, with Rís dominating the midfield and Bukayo Saka at full-back. Martin Odegaard had a flash, Gabriel Magalhaes bullied the Wolves forwards and David Raya was at ease between the posts.
And then one mistake, on this occasion by Oleksandr Zinchenko, and suddenly back the old nervousness. For the next 10 minutes of the game, Arsenal supporters were on their feet not through excitement but because of anxiety. He was so worried, that Raya inspired one of the loudest cheers of the evening when Raya took a harmless cross.
In those final moments it felt like the Emirates of another era. From the final years of Arsene Wenger’s reign, perhaps, or the dark days of Unai Emery’s tenure. Few home crowds can convey angst as effectively as this one in north London.
The difference between the old teams and Arteta’s current outfit, of course, is that Arsenal 2023 are capable of surviving such high-stress moments. And they will survive here, as goals from Saka and Odegaard were enough to secure the three points that keep them at the top of the Premier League table. All in all, Arteta was satisfied with another promising performance. Arsenal attacked hard and fast, scoring two early goals, and should have made it three or four by the time Matheus Cunha pounced on Zinchenko’s error.
It was an evening that brought out the best and worst of Zinchenko. The Ukraine international is essential to Arsenal’s attacking play, and he provided a huge assist for Odegaard’s goal. The pace of the run, the vision, the timing of the transition: it was all flawless.
But then, at the other end, there was a mistake for the goal, when Zinchenko lost possession in his own penalty box. It wasn’t Zinchenko’s only error. “In the Premier League you get punished, big time, for that,” Arteta said.
Is it simply that Arsenal have to accept that Zinchenko’s style is a high-risk, high-value player? In recent weeks, it must be said, he has been extremely defensive. On this occasion, less so.
“You have to love him, the way he is,” said Arteta of Zinchenko. “Every player has strengths and weaknesses. Alex has many more strengths. This happened and it can happen to any player. We have to learn from him.”
At the other end, it was fitting that Odegaard and Saka both scored, given the quality of their individual performances. Odegaard was at his creative best, finding the passes that opened up the Wolves defense and converting his chances with typical decisiveness.
Meanwhile, Saka has now scored eight goals and registered 10 assists in 20 games in all competitions this season. Those are first rate numbers.
At one point in the first half, Saka beat his opponent by stopping his running and standing still. That is what scares defenders. Get too close, and Saka turns into a distance. Stay too far away, and he whips a cross to a team-mate.
The only solution is to deploy two defenders at the same time and Wolves failed to do that at the crucial moment, when Takehiro Tomiyasu’s pass found Saka in the penalty area. “He manages to find a way to get through,” said England winger Gary O’Neil.
Ó Néill knew this would be a challenging evening. Wolves have kept just one clean sheet in their last 24 away league games and here they were without suspended midfielders Joao Gomes and Mario Lemina. In their absence, Rice took full ownership of the Emirates pitch.
It is no coincidence that, with Rice patrolling the midfield, right-back Tomiyasu created Arsenal’s first goal and left-back Zinchenko created the second.
That second strike, struck by Odegaard, was perhaps the best of Arsenal’s season so far. From Zinchenko to Jesus, back to Zinchenko, into Odegaard and then into the back of the Wolves net. All in the space of a few seconds.
At that point, only 13 minutes had passed. It looked like the game was won. But Cunha changed the mood of the evening with his effort, before Arsenal greeted the final whistle with genuine relief. Their place at the top of the table is secure, even if it was a much bigger evening than anyone expected.