A week ago it was tempting to pay Mikel Arteta little heed when he claimed to have detected a fundamental change in Nicolas Pépé’s demeanour. It smacked of a manager trying to talk up a failed club record signing in time for the summer and it was hardly the first time he had spoken of a turning point for the Ivorian. But by the end this felt like one for both player and, thrillingly for all those who celebrated wildly after Arsenal snatched the points in injury time, a club whose tails are up at long last.
Champions League places are secured through nights like this: if any doubt remained, it should now be acknowledged that Arteta’s team have an excellent chance of achieving their end.
When Arteta scanned his bench for options to rescue a night that appeared likely to be defined by Hwang Hee-chan’s early goal for Wolves, it did not say much that Pépé appeared by far his best option to turn things around.
He had barely played in the Premier League since October, but Arsenal’s squad is thin and was dealt another blow this week when Emile Smith Rowe was taken ill. Pépé and another forward seemingly destined for an exit, Eddie Nketiah, were what amounted to the cavalry but nobody will understate their ability to make an impact now.
Arsenal had gathered breath for a late onslaught after largely toiling during the second half but Wolves, who may regret failing to bare their teeth more often given their impressive precision when they did attack, looked likely to hold out. Then Nketiah ran on to a delicately chipped ball down the right from Martin Ødegaard, who performed superbly yet again, and sensed Pépé making a run inside him. His clipped pass took Pépé away from goal but was tamed sublimely with a right-footed dragback, creating in one movement a chance that was clinically dispatched with his left.
Pépé had been on the pitch for 11 minutes and Nketiah for six. When the fourth official’s board showed another half-dozen to be played after regulation time, brought about in part by a bizarre episode in which Raúl Jiménez was booked for refusing to leave the field after his number was apparently put up in error, Arsenal scented a winner.
“I told you last week, I see a different Nico,” Arteta said of Pépé afterwards. He made another critical contribution with the game’s final significant action. As with most of Arsenal’s best work, the move gained its crucial traction at Ødegaard’s feet. He fed Alexandre Lacazette inside the area and the captain, who had worked tirelessly but endured a frustrating night, played a sharp one-two with Pépé. It gave Lacazette a shooting chance at an angle on the right and, while his effort would have gone wide, it was diverted into the far corner off José Sá’s glove. The Emirates erupted; it may go down as an own goal but the significance could be far-reaching.
For most of the affair Wolves had been on course to leapfrog Arsenal into fifth place and avenge their narrow defeat at Molineux less than a fortnight previously. They had started well, seeing Romain Saïss’s effort narrowly disallowed for offside before Hwang capitalised on a rare error from Gabriel.
The centre-back had been the matchwinner in the previous encounter but here, guarding a long pass down the left as Jiménez gave chase, he was sloppy. An attempted back pass to Aaron Ramsdale was executed without enough purchase or, crucially, a look up. In nipped Hwang with the keeper stranded and his tightly angled finish was made to look simple.
Jiménez, playing here for the first time since the sickening clash of heads with David Luiz that fractured his skull in November 2020, should have doubled the lead almost immediately but dragged wide after being sent away by Daniel Podence. Wolves could rue that and the moment when, just after the interval, more fine work from Podence released Hwang for a shot that slithered wide of the far post via Aaron Ramsdale’s foot.
Otherwise Arsenal made the running even if clear chances were scarce.
Superb first-half blocks by Saïss and Max Kilman, from Ødegaard and Lacazette respectively, characterised Wolves’ formidable defending of the six-yard box while Gabriel Martinelli stabbed over.
Lacazette, who too often appeared sluggish once he got inside the box, saw two shots saved and screwed another couple wide. It did not appear Arsenal’s night but, as Arteta pelted down the touchline and punched his fists in front of the crowd upon witnessing their clincher, suddenly this started to feel like their year.
“We had a difficult January but we are coming back better in February and we want to continue until the end of the season,” a delighted Lacazette said. The momentum is all Arsenal’s now.