Lauded four weeks ago as the ‘giant-killers’ for their head-turning 2-0 win away to Man City, Wolverhampton Wanderers have let it be known they will play for a result in every ground this season.
Nuno Espírito Santo’s men have found the net at least once in each of their last nine Premier League games however due to a not-so-watertight defence, six of their last ten games have finished 1-1.
Wolves can, however, boast they are unbeaten in their last eight Premier League games in London, winning three & drawing five, since losing to Fulham 5-0 in March 2012.
The last time these sides met back in April, Wolves won 3-1 and walked away as winners at home to Arsenal. Although the matchday programme at the Emirates might have reflected a more positive statistic like, “We haven’t lost a 3 PM Saturday fixture at home since August 2013”.
Gameweek 12 of last season saw the very same fixture of Arsenal vs Wolves end in a 1-1 draw. Almost a year on, the repeat fixture ended up as a repeat result. The purists might be happy at least that there was no long pause to look up at the purple branded VAR screen. The match may have ended as a draw, but it was the visitors who had more to say for walking away with three points than the hosts.
Arsenal set out in a 4-3-1-2 formation. Lacazette was reintroduced to the starting XI alongside Aubameyang while Ozil, Torreira & Rob Holding kept their spots from the mid-week league cup game against Liverpool. The captain, Granit Xhaka, did not feature on the team sheet, however, with options on the bench, Dani Ceballos and Matteo Guendouzi occupied the remaining midfield positions.
Wolves set out in a 5-3-2 formation. After 11 changes from the midweek league cup game away to Aston Villa, Wolves reverted back to the tried and trusted starting XI that has been a regular feature in the league this season.
Wolves dominate the early stages
It was the Wolves who controlled the game and looked the more likely to open the scoring. Wolves’ build-up play came through long ground passes to the temporarily out-of-position striker Raúl Jiménez who would lay-off the ball to oncoming centre-midfielders of either Rúben Neves or João Moutinho.
At this point, with play concentrated centrally, the ball would be dispersed to the near side wing-back mounting a charge high and wide on the Arsenal defence, with the support of the outside midfielder and the play-making forward Diogo Jota. When Arsenal became imbalanced from shifting across to deny Wolves’ numerical superiority, Wolves’ quickly took advantage by changing the point of attack to the opposite side where the wing-back and the near-side midfielder were waiting to receive the ball and exploit Arsenal’s weak side.
The key aspect to Wolves’ success with this strategy came from Arsenal having to commit a midfielder to support the full-backs in defence. Therefore, this left Arsenal inferior across the midfield as Wolves looked to play the ball back across midfield to exploit either central or weak-side opportunities. For Arsenal’s defence, this meant huge demands on their horizontal movement to not allow Wolves’ wide players time and space to get in behind.
For all of Wolves’ dominant attacking play in the first 15 minutes, it seemed Arsenal would need to find a successful outlet. If not, a chance to score from a counter-attack. However, Wolves again showed as much purpose and poise out of possession, denying Arsenal the opportunity by capitulating the Arsenal attacks.
For all of Wolves’ attacking prowess and near misses, they were very unfortunate not to find a breakthrough by half time. Wolves had a first-half xG of 1.11 as opposed to Arsenal’s xG of 0.56. However, not making the chances count, Wolves had it all to do as they started the second half a goal down.
Arsenal were fortunate not to find themselves behind to some very promising attacks by Wolves. Arsenal collected themselves and matched the tempo of the game dictated by their opposition. Arsenal began playing the signature low risk, low reward possession football just inside the opponent’s half, and it was Guendouzi and Özil pulling the strings to start Arsenal attacks.
Aubameyang hits 50, but Arsenal struggles to beat the block
As Arsenal settled in, we began to see how they were aiming to get success against Wolves. In their patient build-up play, Arsenal exercised a lot of unthreatening horizontal movements with the ball, in the aim that persistence may offer an opening to take advantage.
Full-backs Kieran Tierney and Rob Holding were a mainstay on the flanks, looking to offer penetrating passes or crossing opportunities when possible. However, very few were actually attempted. The four midfielders for Arsenal utilized a lot of ‘high to low’ rotations at times, with Özil & Torreira looking to receive the ball in pockets of space, unmarked. Lacazette offered himself as the free-roaming play-making striker that supported the midfield, while Aubameyang occupied the highest point of attack.
As you can see in the image above, there were four Arsenal midfielders playing in a diamond shape to exploit spaces going forward in Wolves midfield. Just ahead of Özil is Holding and Lacazette who are forward outlets looking to progress the attack.
Only a minute later, Aubameyang reaches the half-century record as he scores his fiftieth Arsenal goal. The attack coming from a quick turnover in possession, Arsenal lose and regain possession from their own throw-in, Guendouzi picks up possession high and wide on the right and delivers a long ground pass to Lacazette in the box, who turns the Wolves defender to lay a perfectly weighted pass into Aubameyang’s run which he hits perfectly into the bottom right corner with one touch.
At times Arsenal did opt for long ariel balls for an isolated striker to contest with. Owing to Wolves’ good defensive organization, those moments perhaps had to be put down to ‘hit and hope’ to find success with all that possession.
For all the possession Arsenal enjoyed, comparative statistics showed Arsenal were less likely to get success in front of goal than Wolves. For all of Arsenal’s 10 attempts at goal, only four shots hit the target in the whole game, three of which we cannot say were convincing. Wolves, on the other hand, aimed at Arsenal’s goal with 23 shots, only eight hitting the target, still doubling Arsenal’s total.
More worrying for Arsenal when analysing attacks that resulted in shots on goal, 47 of Arsenal’s attacks produced seven shots on goal – 15%, whereas Wolves conjured 16 shots on goal from 50 attacks, 32%.
The return of Özil to the starting XI had us wondering if we were going to see that trademark reverse pass into the defender’s blindspots to open up the game. Was Özil going to be the architect to undo the backline of Wolves? While he was journeying the field, trying to find combinations and create openings, plaudits should still go to the quality and resolve of Wolves’ defensive organisation.
The first of the Arsenal players to be withdrawn from the field was Lacazette. At the 60th minute, Lacazette made way for Gabriel Martinelli, the promising 18-year-old forward. For all of his pace and developing quality, a point can be made that Arsenal may have been better served by leaving an experienced striker in Lacazette on the field for his game. 13 minutes later, Torreira was asked to make way for the inexperienced Bukayo Sako. Still yet to prove himself in front of goal, Sako featured on the front line of Arsenal as an attacking outlet with Aubameyang.
Wolves find the breakthrough
Wolves were quick in transition and looked to exploit Arsenal’s stretched defence on the break. With the experience of Neves and Moutinho and the dangerous quality of Jimenez & Diogo Jota going forward, Wolves looked good for a reply, and sure enough, that is exactly what happened.
Within a good spell of possession in Arsenal’s final third, Wolves won a second throw-in in a matter of seconds. Quickly taken, a looping ball in the unoccupied space of Arsenal’s backline, Moutinho made a blindside run off Dani Ceballos to meet the ball in a very advantageous position. Two touches later and a high lob to the back post of the Arsenal goal, before Holding and Sokratis could determine responsibility for the ball, Jimenez rose high to make an attacking header with conviction. The ball was placed in the same bottom right corner that Aubameyang found in the first half.
Arsenal were stunned, and left with a 1-1 on the scoreboard at the Emirates.
The attacking quality of both teams came to life after the second goal, but Arsenal could do no more to threaten the Wolves defence than they had already displayed, owed perhaps to the maturity and experience of the Wolves midfield. The famed ‘dark arts’ of the game were exercised by Moutinho; for his persistence, he finally picked up a yellow card for cutting down Özil during an Arsenal counter-attack. The game was quite stretched after the second goal but Arsenal were unable to conjure any moment that would have the home fans on the edge of their seats.
Wolves maintained an effective balance between attacking and defensive organisation. It was the Wolves shape that seemed to dictate the game, neutralising the Arsenal attacks efficiently in the wide areas, and creating many chances in front of the Arsenal goal. It goes down to inefficient execution in front of the Arsenal goal to not walk out winners at the final whistle.
Match winner left on the bench?
For Unai Emery’s third and final substitution at the 87th minute, the Arsenal manager opted for a straight swap of left-back for left-back, Tierney for Kolasinac, which may have left some scratching their heads. Arsenal, like Wolves, just needed that slight change of approach to get a goal but it did not seem to come. One has to wonder if there was a missed chance in Nicolas Pepe. Pepe, going into matchday 11 was ranked first place for Arsenal when accounting for ‘Best dribbler in 1 v 1s’ this season, and he is also Arsenal’s best player in attacking duels, succeeding in 63. Equally important to mention is that Pepe is ranked first among all Arsenal players for ‘Best Shooter’ with an average of 2.5 per game.
Matching this up with his opposite number by position on the field is Roamin Saiss, Wolves’ left-sided centre-back. Saiss, was the worst performer in the Wolves’ backline on the day when it came to ‘Defensive duels’ winning only 38% and ‘Winning loose balls’ with only 67%.
Considering after the second goal both teams became quite stretched, and Saiss was already cautioned with a yellow card by Michael Oliver, perhaps then would have allowed the perfect entry for Nicolas Pepe. As we know from Arsenal’s most recent Europa League outing, Pepe can come off the bench in the late stages to find a winner. No doubt it would have been a contest favourable to Arsenal’s young attacking prodigy, however, it goes down as a chance missed as Arsenal were forced to settle for the point.
Arsenal had it all to do after the Wolves match to pick themselves back up. Unfortunately for Arsenal fans, the struggles continued with a draw during their European campaign in Portugal on Wednesday night against Vitoria Guimaraes SC. Furthermore, a 2-0 loss against an in-form Leicester City did not brighten the hopes of the red side of North London.
Unai Emery will have a few matters to ponder over as he looks to hold fast to the chances of a fourth-place finish in the league. What role will Xhaka play in these next couple of important games? Will Özil hold his spot in the team going forward as Arsenal look for a creator between the lines? Currently, Arsenal is without an in-form goal-scorer to lead the line, and the added jeers around the Emirates will not serve as help as they look to get their domestic season back on track.
Wolves can feel a little frustrated: they did not keep a clean sheet nor capitalise on their better chances in the game. Walking away from game week 11 with their seventh 1-1 in the Premier League, it’s another case of ‘what might have been’. The good news for Wolves fans was the 1-0 win against ŠK Slovan Bratislava on Thursday night that helped them continue their good run of form in the Europa League. Furthermore, a 2-1 victory against rivals Aston Villa at the Molineux Stadium saw them keen to walk away with three points one week on.
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