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Arsenal huff and puff but can’t blow the big bad Wolves down

Arsenal 1 Wolves 1

Gervinho 8; Fletcher 38

After watching Manchester City, Chelsea and Liverpool all drop points unexpectedly on Boxing Day, Arsenal wasted an opportunity to claim a place in the top four as they were held at home by a stubborn Wolves side. The visitors battled hard to end a run of six consecutive away defeats in the Premier League and earn their first point away from Molineux since August 27th – exactly four months ago. However, this was a game Arsenal should have won, and nine times out of ten would have won.

Arsène Wenger made four changes from the side which squeezed past Aston Villa 2-1 last Wednesday. Alex Song returned after serving a one-match ban, while Johan Djourou made a surprise early return from injury. With Theo Walcott ill, Yossi Benayoun was rewarded for his late winner at Villa Park with his first league start for the club, with Tomáš Rosický also drafted into the line-up.

Szczęsny

Djourou – Mertesacker – Koscielny – Vermaelen

Song – Arteta

Rosický

Benayoun – van Persie – Gervinho

Last season Arsenal won 2-0 both home and away. Marouane Chamakh scored in both the first and last minutes at Molineux, while a Robin van Persie brace underpinned a straightforward victory at the Emirates,

Arsenal pegged back after early Gervinho opener

Gervinho kept his cool to give Arsenal an early lead (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

Both teams enjoyed bright moments early on down their left flanks courtesy of Gervinho and Matt Jarvis, but it was the Arsenal man who opened the scoring with the first meaningful chance of the game after eight minutes. Jarvis wriggled his way into the Arsenal box but was dispossessed, and the hosts broke at pace. Tomáš Rosický brought the ball up towards half-way and linked up with Yossi Benayoun. The Israeli’s through-ball found Gervinho’s diagonal run behind the visitors’ back line, and the Ivorian calmly took it around Wayne Hennessey before sliding it home between two defenders. It was the seventh goal Wolves have conceded in the first 15 minutes of games this season, the worst in the top flight.

Arsenal continued to dominate, with Benayoun and Rosický prompting many of their best attacks. However, they squandered at least four decent chances to double their lead. Thomas Vermaelen galloped forward to receive a neat reverse pass from Benayoun, but his fierce drive was well saved by Hennessey. A quick counter-attack ended with a sliding Robin van Persie dragging a tricky effort wide. The Dutch striker then dispossessed Karl Henry on the edge of his own area, but Mikel Arteta’s resultant shot was blocked. And finally van Persie himself wriggled between two defenders before unleashing a low shot which Hennessey did well to turn behind.

In the meantime, with Steven Fletcher isolated up front Wolves offered minimal threat, with only a rushed Stephen Hunt volley scooped well over giving Wojciech Szczęsny any cause for concern. However, with the aid of a huge slice of luck, they drew level seven minutes before half-time.

A Wolves corner was headed clear by Johan Djourou but fell straight to Hunt on the edge of the area. The Irishman chipped the ball back in and, aided by a big deflection, it reached Fletcher, whose gentle header back across goal beat Szczęsny and trickled just inside the far post. It would turn out to be Wolves’ only effort on target in the game.

Arsenal bounced right back, with Rosický testing Hennessey with a 25-yard pile-driver, but could not re-establish the lead before half-time.

Hennessey stands firm

Arsenal continued to dominate proceedings after the interval, with Wolves being forced into an increasingly defensive stance as the half went on. But too often players would make poor decisions in the final third. Gervinho in particular was guilty of misplacing the ball at the end of a number of promising runs.

Mertesacker was one of several Arsenal players to be denied by Hennessey's heroics (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

Even so they created a flurry of chances around the midway point of the half. Van Persie struck a dipping free kick from nearly 30 yards which forced Hennessy to tip smartly over. Rosický crossed with the outside of his right foot onto the head of Per Mertesacker, only for the Wolves keeper to deny his close-range effort with an outstretched leg. Van Persie’s follow-up was deflected behind. Rosický fired narrowly wide from the edge of the area. A succession of corners pinged around the Wolves box but were somehow always scrambled away.

Wolves’ defending throughout this spell was resolute but frequently desperate and constantly flirting with disaster. Then, with still a quarter of an hour remaining, Nenad Milijaš slid in on Arteta from the front, upending the Spaniard. The challenge was a fraction late but hardly vicious or uncontrolled. Stuart Attwell had no hesitation in producing a red card, but to my eyes Wolves had every right to feel aggrieved at the decision.

The sending off established the pattern for the remainder of the game. Ten-man Wolves retreated to the edge of their box while Arsenal huffed and puffed and laid siege to Hennessey’s goal.

Van Persie, thinking he was offside, hesitated in collecting a ball over the top, and by the time he subsequently controlled and shot Wolves had men back in a position to block. Substitute Andrey Arshavin brushed the roof of the net with a snap-shot after a quick one-two with van Persie. Another free kick from the Dutchman required a diving save (albeit a comfortable one) from Hennessey. And even when the Wolves keeper guessed wrong, he managed to keep out van Persie’s near-post drive with his trailing leg. By the time Vermaelen raced into the box in the final minute, it was inevitable that Hennessey would manage to block his effort as he came racing off his line. He duly did so, and nothing Arsenal could muster in six minutes of added-on time ever really looked like beating him.

The booing that came from some sections of the crowd at the final whistle was unwarranted. Arsenal had dropped two points and wasted a major opportunity to make up ground on their immediate rivals, yes, but it was not due to complacency or a lack of effort. They were denied in part by their own tactical shortcomings, but also by some great goalkeeping and a distinct lack of good fortune. Disappointing though it was, it happens sometimes. Arsenal must now ensure that it does not happen again when QPR come to the Emirates on Saturday.

Post-match reaction and analysis

Arsène Wenger was more disappointed by the result than his team’s performance:

It is frustrating but I am more frustrated by the result than the performance and the spirit. You cannot fault the attitude or the commitment or the desire to win the game. We missed a great opportunity but we just have to keep going.

We were caught in a position where we can only blame ourselves. Apart from that their keeper had the game of his life, Wolves fought like mad and well done to them. I don’t know how many shots we had on goal and how many they had, but it was the kind of game that if you play it 20 times you win 19 and you draw one – and it was today.

And he explained the absence of Theo Walcott, with some encouraging news for his return:

Walcott is sick, he has a stomach problem. He is already better today. He could not come to training yesterday, but should be available for Saturday’s game.

Arsenal were unfortunate to only draw after allowing just a single shot on target and holding 73% of possession during the game. They also encountered a goalkeeper in Hennessey who enjoyed one of the best games of his career, producing a string of brilliant saves in the second half. However, they also created some of their own problems, going off the boil in the period leading up to Wolves’ equaliser, and struggling to provide consistent width for much of the game.

After a handful of early threats down the flanks from Matt Jarvis and Ronald Zubar, Arsenal were untroubled and in control defensively for the rest of the game, with Szczęsny not having to make a single save in the entire game. Even the equaliser required a huge deflection to divert the ball towards Fletcher, although Alex Song was slow to clear his lines, playing the Scottish striker onside.

Arsenal largely controlled affairs in midfield too, with Song and particularly Arteta dictating the tempo of play, and Rosický and Benayoun combining well, with the pair frequently switching positions across the entire pitch. However, neither provided the natural width which Walcott does, and both they and later Aaron Ramsey lacked the pace to run at defenders and turn them. With Wolves defending deeply throughout the game and Arsenal lacking a recognised full back to help support on the flanks, Walcott’s width was missed more than his pace – but he was certainly missed.

Gervinho provided a genuine threat in patches from both flanks, but too often his final decision-making or pass selection were poor. And on a day on which van Persie, despite having 12 shots, was below his imperious best – perhaps burdened by a focus on chasing Alan Shearer’s record of 36 Premier League goals in a calendar year – there simply wasn’t enough quality around him to pick up the slack when it came to finishing off their plentiful attacks.

Two points dropped here was a major disappointment but not quite a disaster, but Arsenal can ill afford further slip-ups if they are to maintain their challenge for at least a top four finish. The importance of the upcoming games against QPR (Saturday) and Fulham (Monday) is now even greater. Wenger has some difficult decisions to make as to how he deploys his resources in these two matches, which come barely 48 hours apart.

Arsenal man of the match: Tomáš Rosický. Never a natural winger, he continually popped up in both central and wide positions, driving Arsenal forwards with the directness of his running and passing. Both attempted and completed more passes in the attacking third than any other player. Had a key role in the build-up to Gervinho’s goal.

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About Tim
Father of three. Bit of a geek. That's all, folks.

6 Responses to Arsenal huff and puff but can’t blow the big bad Wolves down

  1. pistolpete says:

    When you have so much of the play there is NO excuse for not
    scoring more, the keeper may have played the game of his life
    but that just means the Arsenal players were not up to it.

    • Tim says:

      Arsenal aren’t the first team this season to have 70%-plus possession and fail to win. Sometimes it just happens, but at least they did create plenty of chances rather than get bogged down playing tippy-tappy on the edge of the box. The finishing could have been better, for sure, but at the same time I don’t remember any truly bad misses either. Our finishing wasn’t good enough, we didn’t create any real sitters, but I think it’s fair to credit Hennessey for having a great game. Sometimes when we don’t get a result it’s not all about how badly we’ve played. Credit where credit’s due – if Wolves had had an ordinary keeper having an ordinary game, we would have been looking at 3-1 or 4-1 and having an entirely different discussion today.

  2. shenif says:

    Wolves are a decent team if they play football. Sorry to say today they did not play football…they mocked the referee who was so ridiculously tentative in his calls….6 minutes was far too little to have for xtra time…it was a tactic that he allowed to happen….Even the wolves were taking so long to make subs as a fan of the game it was quite frustrating….Most surprising player today was Arshavin by far..he was excellent…Benayoun should have been subbed for oxe..we needed to see his progress today.. Good read sports fan ..Gervinho is a work horse who will get his due…

    • Tim says:

      Wolves are capable of playing good football, especially from wide positions. But it’s understandable that they adopted a tough defensive stance against us – particularly given that they had lost their previous six away games. To do otherwise would have been suicidal, so although it didn’t help the game as a spectacle I wouldn’t blame them at all.

      Attwell was appalling – for both sides, not just us. Even at full speed, I thought the Milijas red card was extremely harsh, and watching the replay only confirmed my view. He is a poor referee who cannot handle tough games. (At least he didn’t award another phantom goal, though – small mercies, eh?)

      Arshavin was OK, but I didn’t think he affected the game that much (and I say this as an Andrey fan, not a hater). Ox will get his chance, but I understand Wenger holding him back on this occasion. It was a tough game with tempers fraying, and to expect an 18-year old to come on and turn things around is raising the expectation level VERY high.

      Ho hum. QPR was a must-win game even before yesterday. Doubly so now. But they will have taken heart from a very good draw at Swansea last night, so they must not be underestimated.

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