Mikel Arteta happy to accept the risks and rewards of Oleksandr Zinchenko

Arsenal too strong for Wolves but complacency nearly cost them

For all the defensive security that Arsenal have built this season, and for all the protection that the remarkable Declan Rice offers in midfield, the sense remains that Mikel Arteta’s side are still capable of sabotaging their own cause at any moment.

The defensive errors are no longer as commonplace as they once were in these parts, but they still happen — and they still transform Arsenal’s matches for the worse.

For 86 minutes of this meeting with Wolves, Arsenal were strolling. There was a glorious arrogance to them at times, with Rice dominating the midfield and Bukayo Saka owning his full-back. Martin Odegaard sparkled, Gabriel Magalhaes bullied the Wolves forwards and David Raya was relaxed between the posts.

And then one mistake, on this occasion by Oleksandr Zinchenko, and suddenly the old nervousness returned. For the remaining 10 minutes of the match, Arsenal’s supporters were on their feet not through excitement but because of anxiety. Such was the sense of worry, one of the loudest cheers of the afternoon was triggered by Raya catching a harmless cross.

In those final moments it felt like the Emirates of a different era. From the latter years of the Arsene Wenger regime, perhaps, or the darker days of Unai Emery’s tenure. Few home crowds can convey angst as effectively as this one in north London.

The difference between the teams of old and Arteta’s current outfit, of course, is that the Arsenal of 2023 are capable of surviving such moments of high stress. And survive they did here, as Saka and Odegaard’s goals were enough to secure the three points that keep them on top of the Premier League table. Overall, Arteta was content with another promising performance. Arsenal attacked hard and fast, scoring two early goals, and should really have struck three or four by the time Matheus Cunha jumped on Zinchenko’s error.

Arsenal too strong for Wolves but complacency nearly costs them dearly
Matheus Cunha gave Wolves a late consolation - Shutterstock/Andy Rain

It was an afternoon that demonstrated the best and worst of Zinchenko. The Ukraine international is essential to Arsenal’s offensive play, and his assist for Odegaard’s goal was masterful. The speed of the passing, the vision, the timing of the move: it was all immaculate.

But then, at the other end, there was the mistake for the goal, when Zinchenko lost possession in his own penalty box. It was not Zinchenko’s only error. “In the Premier League you get punished, big time, for that,” said Arteta.

Is it simply the case that Arsenal must accept that Zinchenko’s style makes him a high-risk, high-reward player? In recent weeks, it must be said, he had been defensively superb. On this occasion, less so.

“You have to love him, how he is,” said Arteta of Zinchenko. “Every player has strengths and weaknesses. Alex has many more strengths. This happened and it can happen to any player. We have to learn from it.”

At the other end, it was fitting that Odegaard and Saka both scored, given the quality of their individual performances. Odegaard was at his creative best, finding the passes that opened up the Wolves defence and converting his chance with typical decisiveness.

Saka, meanwhile, has now scored eight goals and registered 10 assists in 20 matches in all competitions this season. Those are world-class numbers.

At one point in the first half, Saka beat an opponent by simply stopping his run and standing still. That is what fear does to defenders. Get too close, and Saka spins into the distance. Stay too far away, and he whips a cross to a team-mate.

The only solution is to deploy two defenders at once and Wolves failed to do so at the crucial moment, when Takehiro Tomiyasu’s pass found Saka in the penalty area. “He manages to find a way of wriggling through,” said Gary O’Neil of the England winger.

Arsenal too strong for Wolves but complacency nearly costs them dearly

O’Neil knew this would be a challenging afternoon. Wolves have kept only one clean sheet in their last 24 league away matches and here they were without suspended midfielders Joao Gomes and Mario Lemina. In their absence, Rice took complete ownership of the Emirates pitch.

It is not a coincidence that, with Rice patrolling the midfield, the right-back, Tomiyasu, created Arsenal’s first goal and the left-back, Zinchenko, created the second.

That second strike, slammed in by Odegaard, was perhaps the best of Arsenal’s season so far. From Zinchenko to Jesus, back to Zinchenko, into Odegaard and then into the back of the Wolves net. All in the space of a few seconds.

At that point, only 13 minutes had passed. It seemed as if the game was won. But Cunha changed the feel of the afternoon with his effort, before Arsenal greeted the final whistle with genuine relief. Their place at the top of the table is secure, even if it was a far more nervy afternoon than anyone had expected.