Wolves 0 Arsenal 1
Same old Arsenal. This may have been their first game for two-and-a-half weeks, a few days of which they spent in Dubai, but they ended it with a fourth red card in six matches.
If ever there was an episode that epitomised what threatens to undermine Mikel Arteta’s attempt to restore Arsenal to the Champions League, it arrived with 21 minutes left to play. Wolves, for all of their good intent, were at arm’s length, but then Gabriel Martinelli picked up two yellow cards in a matter of seconds – the first for obstructing a throw-in and the second for a hot-headed trip on Chiquinho – and the visitors were reduced to 10 men. It ensured a nervy crescendo for an Arsenal side that looked comfortable after opening up a first half lead through Gabriel.
Wolves made life difficult in the closing stages but could not find an equaliser. Ben White cleared off the line after Raúl Jimenez clawed a ball back into the box and Aaron Ramsdale tipped a Leander Dendoncker header on to the roof his net. Bruno Lage was livid, punching the air and kicking the perfectly-landscaped ground of his home dugout as the substitute Fábio Silva elected to cross rather than shoot five minutes into second-half stoppage time.
After a dry and all-round miserable January – Arsenal picked up three red cards and were sent packing in both domestic cup competitions – Arteta recognised the need to reignite their season, especially given Wolves are among those in the conversation for a top-four berth. Thomas Partey returned to the base of the Arsenal midfield alongside Granit Xhaka, himself back from a ban, and Cédric Soares at right-back, allowing White to partner Gabriel in the heart of defence.
White had Arsenal’s first real glimpse of goal. Martin Ødegaard slid in Bukayo Saka and the latter cut the ball back for White, who roamed into the box, but Conor Coady blocked his first-time shot. Until then, a Wolves defence that welcomed back Romain Saiss – whose shirt collar was embroidered with the name of Rayan Awram, who tragically lost his life in northern Morocco last week – appeared typically comfortable; only Manchester City have conceded fewer top-flight goals.
A couple of minutes later Soares curled a delicious cross in from the right but Alexandre Lacazette failed to make any contact at the front post. Arsenal had to make do with a corner, won by Martinelli, who enjoyed a couple of electrifying solo runs in a first half that wriggled away from Wolves. Martinelli’s in-swinging corner was not dealt with, only half-cleared to White, whose header maintained the heat in Wolves’ six-yard box. The Wolves goalkeeper, José Pedro Malheiro de Sa, tried to clear but inadvertently collided with Lacazette, allowing the Arsenal striker to flick the ball on and Gabriel tapped in from close range.
Arteta liked what he was seeing, applauding on the touchline and, at one point, cajoled four players – Ødegaard, Martinelli, Soares and Kieran Tierney – to crowd out Daniel Podence, who had caused some early problems for Arsenal.
Wolves were without João Moutinho because of a calf injury but his midfield sidekick, Rúben Neves, sent in a teasing cross for Dendoncker after Podence switched possession. Partey was alert to it but the ball bobbled off his right knee and via Dendoncker’s shoulder before flying into Ramsdale’s grasp.
Nelson Semedo dropped a shot wide just before the interval and Jimenez sent a tame header straight at Ramsdale. Bruno Lage was then bouncing in his technical area after Wolves failed to capitalise on another opening as they outwitted Arsenal with a quick free-kick and Trincão chopped inside Martinelli, only to overcook his cross.
Wolves’ final ball letting them down proved a recurring theme, as attacks fizzled out. Dendoncker was guilty of sending in a cross that was easy prey for Ramsdale and then Podence, much to the ire of his team-mates, drove over from more than 30 yards out.
Trincão nutmegged Gabriel and worked his way to the edge of the box but his cross was cut out and Lage was cussing when White diverted a Podence shot wide after clever play by Semedo.
Wolves were frustrated, particularly with what they deemed to be chronic time wasting by the visitors, of which Gabriel seemed to be the chief culprit. Ramsdale turned to the Sir Jack Hayward Stand and smiled as he calmly beat the Wolves press but little did he know that things were about to get uncomfortable.
Martinelli’s dismissal turned this game into attack versus defence, but Arsenal prevailed.