If Arsenal needed any clarity on the high-wire act they have signed themselves up for on the run-in, Thursday’s dramatic 2-1 win over Wolves was it.
Around the same time as Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang added another goal to his burgeoning tally for Barcelona at Napoli, the Gunners turned to contract rebel Eddie Nketiah to rescue something from a game that was drifting away from them.
Nicolas Pepe, the club’s largely disappointing £72 million record-signing, had already been thrown on five minutes earlier. With Gabriel Martinelli subdued and eventually substituted, and Emile Smith Rowe absent through illness, manager Mikel Arteta had nothing left on the bench. This was it.
And just as it appeared a glorious chance to close in on a top-four place was slipping from the grasp courtesy of Hwang Hee-Chan’s 10th-minute goal, the two substitutes combined to find a way back. Martin Ødegaard produced a sumptuous pass for Nketiah, who aligned his clever run with a smart cutback, which Pepe turned on smartly to fire past Wolves goalkeeper Jose Sa.
Then in the fifth minute of added time, Pepe, Ødegaard and Alexandre Lacazette combined to create a chance for the latter to shoot at goal, an effort which Sa could only divert into his own net.
Arsenal’s decision to allow Aubameyang to leave the club in January without signing a replacement was decision based on a belief it would have been reckless to commit significant funds midseason on options which were not on their shortlist. The gamble of waiting until the summer is eminently sensible in the cold light of day, but under the lights at an exasperated Emirates Stadium it rarely feels more of a risky gamble.
Lacazette spent much of the preceding 95 minutes acting as a more effective cheerleader than a centre-forward, regularly geeing up the crowd during breaks in play as the home side tried to free themselves from a problem of their own making, Gabriel failing to find goalkeeper Aaron Ramsdale with an innocuous back pass, allowing Hwang a chance to score.
As is the case with Nketiah, Lacazette’s contract expires in the summer and, as things stand, both will leave on free transfers but neither can be faulted for their commitment as they look to fill the void left by Aubameyang.
“They are trying their best and I trust them, we trust them,” Arteta said. “They have different qualities. They can play together and they showed me every day that they want to contribute and get what we want so they are doing it.”
If anything, Lacazette appears to be relishing the responsibility of stepping into the captaincy role following Aubameyang’s departure.
“When I see our striker in the 85th minute chasing a full-back in the corner flag, winning the ball back, playing, going, fighting, missing one chance, missing two chances, going again, what can I do? I can only praise him as much as possible and give him support,” Arteta said of Lacazette.
Doubts will remain about their potency, however. The last time an Arsenal player scored a league goal from open play operating in the centre-forward position was Lacazette against Southampton on Dec. 11, the day Aubameyang was dropped for a breach of team discipline, never to return. Lacazette thought he had broken that run with the winning goal but replays showed his effort was off target before Sa’s inadvertent intervention redirected it.
Martinelli has contributed to the cause from a wide left position while Smith Rowe, Ødegaard and Bukayo Saka’s persistent triple threat underlines that Arteta is building a team not solely reliant on serving a No. 9 to score the vast majority of their goals. But future challenges will be all the more difficult for Arsenal if they lack a centre-forward taking chances. Lacazette still has three league goals to his name. Nketiah has none.
However, for now, Arteta was right to laud the spirit and endeavour of his players to secure a result that delivers a measure of schadenfreude after Wolves criticised the way Arsenal celebrated their win in the reverse fixture a fortnight ago. But, more importantly, it moves them three points behind fourth-placed Manchester United with two games in hand. And to underline this particular achievement, it was the first time in 46 matches that Wolves lost a Premier League game in which they had scored first.
“I said to them at halftime: ‘If you want to be at the top at the end of May, we are going to have to overturn results maybe two, three or four times.’ Today was an opportunity,” Arteta said. “I’m especially happy when a player individually makes an error that costs a goal, then the team can put that aside, win the match and everybody is talking about it.
“I encourage them to celebrate this victory because you can tell how difficult it is in this game to win football matches — and our supporters the same, they should celebrate.”
As a delirious Emirates Stadium began to empty out at fulltime, one Arsenal fan shouted, “It doesn’t get much better than that!”
It doesn’t get much closer than that, either. Chances are, they’d better get used to it.