After a promising re-start to the league season, Wolves fell to their first defeat since January at Molineux as goals from Bukayo Saka and Alexandre Lacazette gave Arsenal all three points. It was a poor performance from Wolves who did not show the defensive solidarity they have done in recent games. The defeat was made worse by Champions League contenders Leicester City, Manchester United and Chelsea all winning meaning Wolves are now five points adrift of the top four ahead of Wednesday’s visit to Bramall Lane.
Wolves 0-2 Arsenal Reaction
Wolves (3-5-2): Patricio, Boly, Coady, Saiss, Doherty, Dendoncker, Neves, Moutinho, Jonny, Traore, Jimenez. (Subs Used: Jota, Neto, Gibbs-White)
Arsenal (3-4-3): Martinez, Mustafi, Luiz, Kolasinac, Cedric, Xhaka, Ceballos, Tierney, Saka, Nketiah, Aubameyang (Subs Used: Maitland-Niles, Bellerin, Willock, Torreria, Lacazette)
Nuno stuck with the 3-5-2 formation which proved successful in the win at Villa Park last Saturday, with the only change seeing Adama Traore coming in for the out of form Diogo Jota. This would see Traore play in a more central role, last seen to be effective in the impressive 2-0 victory at Manchester City earlier in the season. However, this did not go to plan for Wolves up against what had been a shaky Arsenal defence since the re-start. Arsenal matched Wolves with 3 at the back, but provided more attacking threat with 3 strikers upfront, giving Wolves a man advantage in the midfield. Having combined well in the first minute of the game to create an opening, there were high hopes for the Jimenez and Traore link upfront. However, it was far from fruitful as Wolves did not register another chance prior to the half time break.
For the majority of the first half, Raul Jimenez seemed isolated. As a player that thrives off linking the play and creating on-field partnerships, his threat was completely nullified and to a point this was Wolves own doing. Adama Traore’s natural instinct is to run into space which is predominantly found out wide. This meant that his threat too was nullified as he was often seen coming deep to receive the ball where he is largely ineffective. This also meant that when Traore did receive the ball, he had his back to goal and the Arsenal midfield were able to win the ball back before he could turn and run at the defence.
Despite this. Nuno decided not to make any tactical changes at half time, however, it did not take long into the second half for Diogo Jota to enter the stage and Wolves resumed to the 3-4-3 formation. Wolves improved greatly after this change and created a number of half-chances. However, they will be looking back at Adama Traore’s one on one with Emi Martinez as the moment that could have changed the game as he lifted the ball over the bar from an angle after excellent work from Ruben Neves and good link-up play from Jota and Jimenez. It was at this moment in the game that a full and rowdy Molineux would have given Wolves that extra edge and intensity, as has often shown when attacking the Southbank goal in the second half. This is an unfortunate example of where the fans may have forced a draw from the game. However, there is little point in dwelling on this as Wolves no doubt benefited from the absence of the Villa Park crowd last week and should look to capitalise on these circumstances at Bramall Lane on Wednesday evening.
After a bright spell following the introduction of Diogo Jota, the game somewhat fizzled out as Arsenal scored their second late on to confirm the win. Nuno introduced Pedro Neto and played both he and Traore on the right flank, with Traore taking the role of right wing-back. This was a move of desperation to try and salvage a point from the game which was largely ineffective as Wolves did not come close in the latter stages of the game. It was an out of sorts performance for the back three too, with Willy Boly missing a chance to intercept the cross-field ball which led to the first goal and lacking his usual cool and calm nature when defending. Romain Saiss struggled up against the impressive Bukayo Saka and also Joe Willock who came on from the Arsenal bench. Conor Coady was left flat-footed and unusually unaware of the movement around him as Alexandre Lacazette rounded off the Arsenal victory. Arsenal also went close on a number of occasions. Eddie Nketiah hit the post in the first half after getting in behind the Wolves backline while Joe Willock was unlucky not to add a third late on as Arsenal carved an opening, but Ruben Neves was there to clear off the line.
It was a bad day at the office all round and Wolves simply cannot afford to have another one between now and the end of the season if they are serious Champions League contenders. The defeat raises questions about their ability to match the expectation of Champions League contenders, having gained praise and media attention following three consecutive wins.
Wolves 0-2 Arsenal Key Moments
In the early exchanges of the game, Romain Saiss played a long ball forward which was won excellently by Raul Jimenez who played in Traore. Traore used his pace to great effect and just got there ahead of former Wolves loanee Emi Martinez but couldn’t lift it over the goalkeeper. It was an excellent move and promising opening to the game which could have changed the outcome entirely had Traore managed to convert.
It had been coming. Just before the half time whistle Wolves were made to pay for their lacklustre first half. An out of character Willy Boly missed his chance to intercept the cross-field ball, as the ball fell to Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and he played in Tierney who was not closed down quick enough by Matt Doherty. Arsenal’s wing back’s cross deflects off the Irish international and back and into the path of Bukayo Saka who finished brilliantly on the half volley.
Having started the second half with much greater intensity, Wolves missed a golden opportunity to level the score and put the game back into their control. The ball was won back well by Ruben Neves in the middle of the park before a nice interchange between substitute Diogo Jota and Jimenez who played Traore into space. This time he lifted the ball over the keeper but also over the bar. On reflection, Traore should have opted for side-foot finish given the angle he found himself at or have gone around the goalkeeper to finish.
As Wolves pushed for a late equaliser gaps began to appear in the Wolves defensive shape. After good work from Joe Willock up against Romain Saiss down the right-hand side, the ball inside finds its way to Lacazette who had not long come off the bench. He got there ahead of the flat-footed Coady and finished well to win the game for Arsenal. It was poor defending all round but particularly from Conor Coady who should have been more alert to the movement of Lacazette.
Wolves 0-2 Arsenal Man of the Match
In an afternoon of below par and average performances, Ruben Neves provided just about the best out there. His ability to win the ball in the middle of the park has improved greatly since the re-start and that was once again on show at Molineux, most notably having a hand in setting Traore free down the right for the chance of the game for Wolves. His awareness to cover Rui Patricio’s goal line to clear Joe Willock’s effort late on prevented the scoreline from becoming a humiliation at home for Wolves. Far from his best, but he was just about the best Wolves had on show.
Things to Improve on
First Half Performances
Having noted this particular weakness after every game since the re-start I was beginning to feel a bit of a hypocrite with Wolves registering three wins from three. However, yesterday’s performance had certainly been coming on the basis of the first half performances Wolves have produced in the past two weeks. Having changed the games in the second halves of all three wins so far, it was evident that a team would punish Wolves for their slow starts and that is exactly what Arsenal did. With the exception of Adama Traore’s very early opening, Wolves did little to trouble Emi Martinez in the first half and allowed Arsenal to bring the ball forwards creating multiple chances, one eventually put home by Bukayo Saka. With Wolves’ impressive record in games in which they take the lead under Nuno, you do wonder where Wolves could be if their first-half performances were to their expected levels throughout the season.
Attacking Set Pieces
Another area Wolves could really do with improving on if they’re to sustain their Champions League push until the end of the season is set pieces. It is now almost impossible to get excited at the prospect of a Wolves corner or wide free-kick as the expectation is that nothing will ever come of it. Despite the brilliance in which Joao Moutinho brings to the squad, one glaring weakness is his corner delivery and yet Nuno sticks with him game by game. Out-swinging free kicks from out wide also provide little goal threat. The blame does not entirely like with Moutinho here, as pointed out by Martin Tyler on commentary on Sky Sports yesterday, Wolves very rarely ‘pack the box’ for set pieces, as if to hope something drops for them rather than make something of it themselves. With some crucial games coming up against sides of similar ability such as Sheffield United, Everton and Chelsea, Wolves can expect some close encounters in which they will need to come out on top to sustain their dreams of Champions League football at Molineux next season, and making the most of set-pieces might just be the difference.
It was an extremely disappointing afternoon for Wolves who were far from their best and punished by Mikel Arteta’s improving Arsenal side. Results elsewhere rounded off an extremely bad day for Wolves and their Champions League hopes. However, with 5 games left and all still to play for, Wolves are far from out of this race which looks like it could go to the wire as they travel to Stamford Bridge on the last day of the season. Nuno’s focus for now, however, will be how they can bounce back against Sheffield United at Bramall Lane on Wednesday.
Ciaran Barker is part of the Talking Wolves editorial team – you can follow him on Twitter here.