WOLVERHAMPTON — A victory all the more impressive for Arsenal who managed to overcome two tough opponents. Wolves were an almighty test for the Gunners but nothing compared to the gauntlet Arsenal threw down at their own feet.
For the fourth time in the 41 days of 2022 Arsenal received a red card when Gabriel Martinelli was booked twice for fouls separated by a matter of seconds. The dismissals are still running clear of the goals but their second of the latter in 2022 may prove to be decisive in the race for a top four finish. It was Gabriel who claimed it, bundling home in the first half a contest that, when 11 against 11, proved to be evenly matched. Fifth in the table, Arsenal trail West Ham by a point with two games in hand. Further disciplinary lapses will make the remaining 16 matches an almighty challenge, but they have their fate firmly in their own hands. That is rather the problem. No team is proving to be more capable of losing its cool when it matters most
Losing Martinelli spoiled the contest perhaps more than any other player would have. In a game where both sides seemed reliably incapable of turning good positions into good shots, he stood out. His every thought was about how he could take the ball as close to the Wolves goal as possible, ideally getting a shot away in the process. He was a spark plug the hosts simply could not quell, at least by legal means. Max Kilman’s robust trip on the Brazilian after five minutes set the tone for how Martinelli would be defended.
Sometimes they could not even get that close to him. Arsenal’s issue was that their players could not either. As he charged up the pitch midway through the first half, turning a defensive clearance into a final third entry, he tried a reverse pass away from the mass of defenders and into Alexandre Lacazette. The issue was rather that the Frenchman was at least 15 yards behind the move.
Even Arsenal’s scrappy first goal began with Martinelli’s instincts to get the ball at the goal. After a Cedric cross flew over Lacazette’s head he tried to turn it goalwards from the tightest of angles. It might have been the best goal scored this season if it hadn’t been deflected out for a corner.
What followed was instead one of the most aesthetically unappealing goals you will see in many a year, albeit one for which the match officials deserve no little credit. The corner was sent back across the six yard box by Ben White towards Lacazette. Keeper Jose Sa hurled himself at it for Wolves but connected with Arsenal’s No.9. In years gone by any contact with a goalkeeper, regardless of who initiated it, seemed to result in a foul being given on the opponent. Michael Oliver and his VAR were unmoved, and Gabriel’s close range tap in, which occurred after the contact, stood.
An onslaught came soon after for the home side, though it was a curious style of pressure Wolves applied to Arsenal, all territory but precious few shots. Granit Xhaka denied them the best shooting opportunity with a deft clearance at the back post but Aaron Ramsdale only had one save of note to make from Raul Jimenez before the interval.
That trend continued into the second half, where Wolves had all the territory but only a Leander Dendoncker header brought gasps of hope from Molineux. In the hosts’ defense, much of their momentum was crushed by the brazen timewasting of Arsenal, who had been the victim of similar tactics from Burnley last time out. As early as the 60th minute Gabriel was being booked for taking too long over a free kick, hardly the shrewdest of tactics when Thomas Partey and Xhaka were also walking disciplinary tightropes.
There might have been something admirable in a team so long maligned for their naivete brazening their way to three points. They were just so bad at it. Martinelli, the man who turbocharged their attack, was given his marching orders because he could not be a cold blooded cynic. Shoving Daniel Podence as he took a free kick before chasing down Chiquinho to shoulder charge him earned him the rare honor of picking up two bookings without a break in play between them.
Arteta, however, saw it differently. It was a red card that an official had to “be pretty willing to give”. Though he stopped short of suggesting his side are being targeted he wants talks with the Premier League over the spate of red cards that have been awarded to his team. Their three are a league leading tally.
“If you ask me if I’m happy with the decisions we’ve had this season I’m not at all,” he said, “but that’s a conversation I will have with the officials privately. We need explanations, with things that happened in VAR and what happened today. They’re going to happen soon.”
Regardless of the long term solutions to their red card problem, on the pitch Arsenal were losing their nerve, typified by the pounding the deck reaction of their teammates when Lacazette spurned an excellent one-on-one chance moments later, curling wide of Sa’s far post. But it was mostly one way action as Wolves pushed to equalize. Gabriel’s attempts to shepherd a bouncing ball away from danger near his own goal line gave Chiquinho a chance to head at goal seconds after his rasping shot had been saved by Aaron Ramsdale, one of the precious few visitors showing a modicum of composure.
Xhaka kept futilely urging his charges upfield, insisting they could not stay camped in their penalty area, though when the ball came that way, White and substitute Rob Holding did all that could be asked of them. In just 19 minutes Holding made nine clearances, across the 90 minutes no one else managed more than six.
“Today he deserves a lot of credit,” Arteta said. “He was on the bench, he was ready to help. His attitude, his commitment to the team whether he plays every week or plays one minute, it’s incredibly good. He’s a really good influence for the rest. Today he really helped the team, the way he defended the box made a huge difference. Thanks to him we won the game.”
The Holding-led rearguard was just about enough. Wolves’ late cavalry charge did not really amount to much beyond Sa trundling up for a corner that got nowhere near him or a teammate. The whistle sounded and Arteta and his players punched the air in jubilant disbelief. One of the 17 hurdles between them and the Champions League has been cleared. It would help if they did not keep raising the bar for themselves.