This post originally featured on our comprehensive Wolverhampton Wanderers analysis sister site, wolvesanalysis.com.

“You find out life’s this game of inches, so is football” – Tony D’Amato in the 1999 film Any Given Sunday. While it may be about American Football, never have words rang so true after the game against Arsenal. It feels weird saying this, but it’s true – we deserved to win at the Emirates. Wolves deserved to beat Arsenal. How crazy is that? Morgan Gibbs-White hit the underside of the crossbar deep into stoppage time before the ball bounced the wrong side of the goal line. Inches were the difference. If you look at the stats in insolation from the game, you will see that Arsenal had over 70% of the ball and nine more corners. It’s only when you start to dig a little deeper that you begin to see what should have been.

Did we have our backs against the wall for large parts of the game? Of course. Did we have the better chances? You bet we did. Only some strong goalkeeping from Bernd Leno and some abject finishing on our part prevented us from leaving North London with all three points. The other side of the coin is that Patricio made a couple of saves as well, while Arsenal also squandered some glit-edged opportunities. Six of one, half a dozen of the other. In this analysis, I am going to go through the big moments in the game and they aren’t what you may think. For example, one of them has to do with a substitution that was made. Read on, to find out…

Team News

There were no real surprises when it came to both sides starting XIs; Iwobi got the nod over Mkhitaryan, that aside Emery went with the same side that got the late point against Liverpool last time out in the Premier League. Nuno stuck to his guns, with Jota and Saiss coming in for Bonatini and Hause on the bench the only minor changes.

Resilient is a word I would use to define our defensive performance as it was an onslaught at times from Emery’s guys and nothing really illustrates this better than the average positions of the respective sides. The fact that Arsenal had 80% of their outfield players in our half should give you some idea.

Arsenal Wolves Premier League Tactical Analysis
Arsenal on the left, Wolves on the right. Credit: WhoScored.

There are a few minor observations from the above which jump out. More so than usual, Coady (#16) is much closer to Ryan Bennett (#5) than he is to Willy Boly (#15) and while this can be attributed to the sheer volume of Arsenal players on Wolves’ defensive right-side, it still leaves a slight gap. To give you some idea as to how well we defended, their number ten is Mesut Ozil and despite WhoScored telling me that he made 83 passes, I seldom remember him on the ball. Yes, that could have something to do with Ozil disappearing as he tends to do on occasion, but let’s give us some kudos for that.

xG On Our Side In the First Half

We went into halftime with a one-goal lead that we were good value for. Excluding any shots that were 0.01 or under on the xG scale, the xG score was 0.98-0.65 in the opening period in our favour. Whilst we may have been performing ever so slightly above the model, should we have maybe gone into the break with a two-goal lead? We shall now analyse the two best chances (including the goal) for both sides in the first half, starting with Wolves.

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It seems rather straightforward from a defensive point of view, here.

Xhaka is about to have the ball off Kolasinac and he’s got the forward pass to Torreira or the backwards one to either of the centre-backs to choose from. Costa is pressuring the Swiss national so that he has to make his mind up sooner rather than later and instead of making his mind up, he just decides to let the ball go completely. Although it’s hard to tell from his positioning, one can only presume that he thought Torreira was behind him.

Arsenal Wolves Premier League Tactical Analysis
In the blink of an eye, we were in a 3 vs 3 situation.

As mentioned in the preview, Arsenal’s tendency to push their full-backs high up the pitch leaves them open to quick turnovers of possession and that’s exactly where we find ourselves here. Xhaka has done well to recover, but the damage has already been caused. Cavaleiro can go either way here, however, he opts for the white arrow to Jimenez rather than the red one to Costa.

A Fast Move Finished Well

Arsenal Wolves Premier League Tactical Analysis
The gap between the two Arsenal centre-backs is there for all to see.

Xhaka makes another mistake as he over-commits to shutting Cavaleiro down, Cavaleiro breezed beyond him and put away Jimenez’ return pass first time. If Jimenez wanted to, he could’ve played the ball to the back post and to Costa as Emery’s side seemingly forgot how to mark. One of the beauties of having a liquid front three is that Jimenez can move to the right-hand side to put the ball into the box. A very, very good goal.

Our second-best chance of the half fell to Helder Costa and it all came from Arsenal’s two attempts that we are going to look at shortly. An Arsenal attempt is blocked and the ball ricochets to this position.

Arsenal Wolves Premier League Tactical Analysis
Holding HAS to win that.

With the ball still travelling towards the Arsenal defender, you’d make him slight favourite for the fifty-fifty. When you consider the fact that there’s only one defender behind him, he should be cleaning Costa out of the way to win that ball. Costa gets the better of him, though and we all of a sudden find ourselves in a 2 vs 1 scenario, once again because Arsenal’s full-backs are pushed high up the pitch.

Should Costa Have Played The Early Pass?

Arsenal Wolves Premier League Tactical Analysis
The aforementioned numerical advantage doesn’t last long.

Having the ball in the position doesn’t automatically mean we should score, of course, it doesn’t. On reflection, you do have to wonder might have been. As opposed to getting his head down and driving with the ball, should Costa have played the early pass to Cavaleiro, who is in a much better position? Over the head of Mustafi and Cavaleiro beats him all day in a foot race. Costa decides against that…

Arsenal Wolves Premier League Tactical Analysis
Leno keeps his body big for as long as possible and saves well.

Again, I find myself asking the same question of Costa. Should he have passed the ball? It’s totally understandable why he didn’t, but looking at it retrospectively, did he choose the best option? If he passes the ball to Cavaleiro, he’s just got the two defenders to beat rather than the keeper as well. Jimenez is in such a position where he could blast the ball and probably clear everyone out the way. Hindsight is a magical thing.

Arsenal’s best attempts of the half, as mentioned, come from the phase of play directly before this, let’s have a look over them. It all starts from a throw-in on the Arsenal left.

An Unmistakable Shape

Arsenal Wolves Premier League Tactical Analysis
A solid shape.

In this instance, we have reverted to 5-2-2-1, Jimenez being the only Wolves player not in the shot. There’s not a great deal wrong here at present. Yes, you could argue that Iwobi (more on him shortly) has perhaps got slightly too much room, but the ball is on the other side at the moment, so again, there’s not too much worry about.

Arsenal Wolves Premier League Tactical Analysis
Our back five is now a disjointed mess.

Eighteen seconds and two fifty-fifty losses later, we find ourselves here. For some unknown reason, Bennett decided to close the ball down prior to Iwobi (circled) having the ball, when it really should have been left to Neves. That now means that Bennett isn’t in line with Boly and Coady, Doherty is essentially playing the Bennett role and there’s nobody to play Doherty’s position, hence the pass Iwobi makes.

Bodies On The Line

From the right-hand side, the ball is played across the floor and makes its way to Lacazette. He sells Boly down the river by feigning to shoot, Boly loses his footing and slips and Lacazette is left with this chance.

Arsenal Wolves Premier League Tactical Analysis
Lacazette wrongly goes for power, although he’s left with little choice.

Conor Coady stands up to be counted here and throws himself in front of Lacazette’s shot and the danger passes. I’m not sure how hard Lacazette hit it, but it must have been rather painful for the Wolves skipper. Off Coady, the ball balloons up in the air and we have the opportunity to slow things down. Do we take that chance? Absolutely not.

Arsenal Wolves Premier League Tactical Analysis
Slow the game down!

Doherty opts to head the ball clear here despite having a fair bit of room. Considering how close Neves is to the Irishman, all it would’ve taken would be a shout of “TIME” and Doherty could’ve let the ball drop and we could’ve played out from the back. In contrast, Doherty’s header went straight back to Arsenal and we were yet again under siege.

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You shall not pass!

No one can ever question the commitment of Nuno’s defence. Iwobi’s shot bypasses Neves before hitting Bennett. If it missed Bennett, Coady and Boly were both next in line to take the bullet. Inadvertently, Bennett’s block is what sets Costa away for the above chance that we looked at – that would have been some assist if Costa had managed to beat Leno.

Lessons Learned Or Lucky?

Last week against Spurs, you’ll recall that Son pulled the strings for their first two goals by occupying pockets of space before relaying the ball to the right-hand side. This week, we were more aware of that very danger as Iwobi finds himself in an almost identical position to what Son did for Spurs’ second goal.

Arsenal Wolves Premier League Tactical Analysis
Iwobi has space, but not a great deal of time.

The difference from the Spurs game is twofold. Firstly, Moutinho has sensed what’s going to happen and started to move towards the trouble. Secondly, Jimenez is giving us an extra body on the edge of the area. One thing that is perhaps slightly concerning is that Bellerin (#2), who is just coming into shot, has not been spotted by anyone as of yet.

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Iwobi’s pass isn’t good enough.

Unlike Son’s pass to Trippier last week, Iwobi’s ball out to the right doesn’t have enough conviction on it which enables Jonny to get there first and clear the danger. The danger, naturally, isn’t cleared for very long as Iwobi finds space once more to pick the ball up.

Arsenal Wolves Premier League Tactical Analysis
Yet again, Iwobi finds the space.

Iwobi intelligently stays on Moutinho’s blind side before receiving the pass from Torreira. He distributes the ball out to the left, unfortunately for Iwobi, nothing comes from it. Perhaps the biggest relief of all for Wolves was when Iwobi was taken off at halftime as he was finding space from early on in the game, again, on the blindside of the central midfield. Take this from the opening ten minutes.

Arsenal Wolves Premier League Tactical Analysis
Intelligent Iwobi could have made the difference.

The Nigerian drives with the ball at the heart of our defence from here and is only thwarted when he runs into Ryan Bennett. There were half-claims for a penalty, but nothing too concrete. It would have been a harsh decision, although, with Attwell in charge, anything is possible. It wasn’t just down the middle where Iwobi was finding space; he also found gaps on the right-hand side, so when Guendozi was brought on at halftime, it was a blessing in disguise.

After The Break

The introduction of Guendozi meant that Arsenal switched systems ever so slightly as they shifted from a 4-2-3-1 to a 4-3-1-2, Guendozi made up the extra body in the middle of the park, Ozil played in the number ten role while Aubameyang and Lacazette partnered one another up top. It pretty much killed the game as there weren’t many chances of note until the 73rd minute when Aubameyang missed a glorious opportunity. Rather than focus on their chances in the second half, we will look at their goal and our chances. Sound fair enough? Cracking.

Arsenal Wolves Premier League Tactical Analysis
Undone by a quick corner.

A short, quick corner. We weren’t ready for it and that is ultimately what got Arsenal their goal. Mkhitaryan, who had only been on the pitch ten minutes, is meant to be marked by Moutinho. The problem with that is Moutinho is still giving or receiving instructions and looking in the opposite direction.

It Missed Everyone

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Mkhitaryan gets the goal.

There have been some rumblings of Aubameyang being offside when the ball is floated in, however, there’s not an angle with the defenders in a line, so it’s pretty inconclusive. If I had to go one way or another, I’d say it seems like the ex-Dortmund man is just onside. A bad goal to concede, albeit, on a positive note, Arsenal didn’t have a single shot after this as we defended like warriors. Our best chances came after Arsenal got back into the game, which should give you some indication to the mentality of the players.

Traore was brought on for an injured Helder Costa and for the first time this season, he was deployed down the middle. It so nearly paid off. Our best chance prior to Arsenal levelling came just two minutes beforehand. It fell to Diogo Jota, who is seemingly having no luck whatsoever this season.

Traore The Tormentor

Arsenal Wolves Premier League Tactical Analysis
A surreal amount of room.

Again, their full-backs are pushed up and we have a 3 vs 2 situation. Traore knocks the ball, slightly overhit, to Jimenez as we seek to kill the game off at this point. I don’t want to say that Jimenez has got the freedom of North London, but, well, yeah, he did at this particular moment in time.

Arsenal Wolves Premier League Tactical Analysis
Leno is there to stop us. Again.

Jimenez takes one touch to set himself before playing a pinpoint ball to Diogo Jota at the back post. Jota goes for power and Leno makes himself big and it goes out for a corner. Such a good chance to kill the game off. After that chance and the Mkhitaryan goal, there were only half-chances either way. That was until stoppage time.

A long ball forward by Willy Boly put Traore in a race with an Arsenal defender. I think it was Holding, not that it really matters as nobody is going to catch him.

Arsenal Wolves Premier League Tactical Analysis
Run Adama Run!

As you can see, there are no other Wolves players in the image which in the end proves to be Traore’s downfall. He has to take the shot against Leno after smartly cutting back due to the fact that nobody else in gold and black can keep up with him.

Arsenal Wolves Premier League Tactical Analysis
Another admirable save by Leno.

Traore is closed down by Bernd Leno and like Jota and Costa before him, he couldn’t find a way to score. That would have been annoying at the end of the game if we had missed the three chances that we had. Now imagine we hit the underside of the crossbar as well after finally getting it beyond Leno. Well, that’s what happened.

So Close

Traore was set loose again, this time Gibbs-White did manage to keep up with him. It was Gibbs-White that nearly sent the travelling supporters into raptures. I can’t bring myself to look at the chance image by image as it’s far too upsetting to know we were that close. Instead, here’s a video of the chance. I’m still convinced it was over the line. I know the replays say otherwise, but what are the chances? Have a look.

Devastating. Simply devastating.

Final Thoughts

Following on from going three behind against Spurs, it was a tremendous performance from Nuno’s army against Arsenal. So why doesn’t it feel like a good point? Why does it feel like two points dropped? It’s a weird one and precisely how I felt after the United game in September. The defence was miles better than it was against Tottenham and Traore’s new-found central position was positive as well. Moving on up.

All things considered, it was good to stop the rot going into the international break and we need to follow that up with a win over Huddersfield which yet again falls on a Sunday.

Until the next time.