Having curtailed Manchester United’s unbeaten run last week Wolves arrived here intent on boosting their survival chances and, in the process, Sir Alex Ferguson’s title ambitions. If Mick McCarthy had harboured any notion that that task might be facilitated by Arsenal’s mind-set, which could have been jolted either by last week’s collapse at Newcastle or the prospect of challenging Barcelona on Wednesday, it did not take long for that hope to be crushed.
Wolves began with the composure of a team whose record against the top sides this season has been perversely positive and, with Jamie O’Hara and Nenad Milijas probing with precision, the initial signs were that this was going to be a close contest. Yet the reason Wolves are in the relegation zone is that for all their bright play this season they have been tainted by haplessness, sudden outbreaks of ineptitude sabotaging otherwise accomplished performances.
It was no surprise then to see George Elokobi standing off Cesc Fábregas in the 14th minute, almost advising the Spaniard to take his time and pick out the cross of his choice. Fábregas duly clipped the ball towards the penalty spot, where Richard Stearman had lost track of Robin van Persie. The striker volleyed past Wayne Hennessey and into the net.
Having thus sunk their teeth into Wolves, Arsenal proceeded to tear them to shreds. Jack Wilshere, the 19-year-old whom Fabio Capello has acclaimed as the brain of England’s midfield for the foreseeable future, masterminded the dismemberment.
Five minutes after the opening goal he made another incision, serving Andrei Arshavin with a superb long pass from deep. The Russian jinked past Ronald Zubar and cut the ball back for Theo Walcott, whose shot from eight yards was clawed away by Hennessey. Fábregas followed up and fired low towards the corner but Stearman, covering his goalkeeper, cleared off the line.
Two minutes later Arsenal cut through again, Wilshere this time outfoxing the Wolves’ defence with a sweet dink towards Fábregas. Hennessey scampered off his line to prevent the midfielder from applying a fatal touch.
Hennessey denied Fábregas again in the 37th minute and had to produce two more fine saves from Van Persie before the break to keep the deficit to a single goal. Wilshere was showing the poise and vision that has enraptured Capello, but in the 46th minute he demonstrated that he still has scope to improve.
After waltzing through the defence he teed up Walcott for a simple tap-in, only for the winger to slash his shot wide from eight yards. Such wastefulness remains a persistent failure for Walcott despite the clear progress that he has made this season, but Wenger preferred to point out that Wilshere could have scored himself.
“He had a very good game but there is just a hesitation sometimes to finish himself,” said Wenger of Wilshere, who has scored twice this season. “At the moment he always chooses to give the ball to someone else. Cesc [Fábregas] was like that for a while. When he is a bit more confident he will score more goals.”
Walcott should score more goals, too, but at least he showed that his decision-making and execution are not as unreliable as they once were by creating Arsenal’s second goal in the 56th minute. After being released by Fábregas he played a perfect square ball to Van Persie. The Dutchman finished emphatically, rifling past Hennessey from the edge of the area.
At no point did Arsenal look like repeating their capitulation against Newcastle, partially because Johan Djourou, who had been forced off with injury at St James’ Park, remained immaculate throughout and partially because Arsenal, without going gung-ho as in the past, mostly kept Wolves on the back foot.
Walcott was given the best opportunity to make the victory more emphatic but mis-controlled when put through by Fábregas before recovering to curl a shot wide from an acute angle. Two minutes from time the winger combined with the substitute Marouane Chamakh to rip Wolves apart anew but again he erred at the finish, shooting straight at Hennessey.
“I can’t say we were unlucky, there was a murder going on out there and there was nothing we could do about it,” McCarthy said. The Wolves manager added: “But for Wayne Hennessey we could have lost by six, seven or eight. To get better we have to admire that performance by Arsenal and aspire to it.”
Wenger, meanwhile, aspires to beating a team that, he concedes, are currently at an even higher level than Arsenal and believes this victory will help. “We are playing certainly the best team in world [Barcelona] so it is important to go in with confidence and in a strong situation in the league,” he said. “We have the hunger to do well in all competitions and we showed here that we can focus on one at a time.”
THE FANS’ PLAYER RATINGS AND VERDICT
CHRIS TENNANT, Observer reader We played really, really well. We looked competent throughout and although Wolves gave us a good game we didn’t look vulnerable against them, we just got on with our game. There were, however, quite a few opportunities that we should have made more of and Hennessey made some freak saves. But after half-time, you knew we wouldn’t make the same mistakes as we did last week against Newcastle. I don’t expect us to overtake United but today we looked like a team that was capable of doing so. Overall a cohesive team performance.
The fan’s player ratings Szczesny 8; Sagna 8, Djourou 8, Koscielny 8, Clichy 8; Song 8, Wilshere 8 (Denílson 6) Fàbregas 8; Walcott 8, Van Persie 8 (Chamakh 6), Arshavin 8 (Bendtner 6)
LOUIE SILVANI, MyWolvesblog.com It was a bit of an anticlimax after last week’s win over United. We didn’t do too much going forward until the last 10 minutes but the game was over at that stage. It was the right team that started for us and I don’t think we played that badly but Arsenal were just really good. They were on another level, especially Wilshere and Fábregas. Hennessey made some fantastic saves and Henry had a good game too. We’re bottom of the table now and we’ve two massive games coming up against Blackpool and West Brom. We need to get four points from those.
The fan’s player ratings Hennessey 9; Zubar 8, Berra 7, Stearman 7, Elokobi 6; Hammill 7, Henry 8, O’Hara 6; Milijas 7 (Ebanks-Blake 6), Jarvis 6 (Foley 7); Doyle 7 (Fletcher 6)
To take part in the Fans’ Verdict, email email@example.com
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010