Early winners: Arsenal show title mettle once more to stay top of the tree at Christmas

Mikel Arteta celebrates Arsenal's win at Wolves. Credit: Alamy
Mikel Arteta celebrates Arsenal's win at Wolves. Credit: Alamy

With a five-point lead going into the World Cup, Arsenal must be considered as title contenders. This side are the real deal and they showed it against Wolves…

 

Spending Christmas at the summit doesn’t mean quite as much this year, if indeed it ever carries much significance. But Arsenal will spend their yuletide at the top of the tree. Now can we stop searching for reasons why they should not be considered Premier League title contenders?

The reluctance to pin such a label on Mikel Arteta’s side is understandable. More than anyone, their supporters are refusing to get carried away by the Gunners’ start for fear of it imploding. This is Arsenal after all. But this Arsenal is different. This Arsenal is sustainable.

The latest demonstration of their credentials, the last before a six-week break, came at Molineux where Wolves were brushed aside. Arsenal’s hosts sit at the bottom of the table but this was no cakewalk, nor was it ever expected to be. With new manager Julen Lopetegui in attendance, Wolves were eager and organised. Lopetegui had no input on that plan, apparently, but the Molineux men had a different look in an attempt to counter Arsenal’s threat. Whether Lopetegui persists with it, we will have to wait until after a woefully-timed World Cup.

Perhaps Qatar was on the minds of a few Arsenal players through the first half. Eight of Arteta’s starters will be jetting off with their national teams in the coming days and, collectively, the Gunners seemed to be going through the motions up until the break.

By that time, Granit Xhaka will long since have been showered, assuming he didn’t spend most of his first half in the traps after his 16th-minute withdrawal. Xhaka gave it a go, but he looked worryingly green when the doctor was called for him in the second minute. Without him, Arsenal looked weirdly reluctant to penetrate, on or off the ball. As Wolves sat off, with a back five, the Gunners were too content not to engage.

Gabriel Jesus got into some dangerous areas but never displayed anything like the potency necessary to break his nine-game goalless streak. From five shots, never did he trouble Jose Sa. Not that Arteta really need worry about his centre-forward. Jesus rarely occupies the fringes of games and tonight, he had his third-highest number of touches this season.

One of those touches was a cute reverse pass into the path of Fabio Vieira, apparently reminded at half-time of his obligation to penetrate like Xhaka. Too often in the first period, the Portugal midfield played it safe, showing for the ball to feet. Ten minutes into the second half, he darted behind the Wolves defence to put the ball on a plate for Martin Odegaard to give Arsenal the breakthrough.

Martin Odegaard scores for Arsenal against Wolves. Credit: Alamy
Martin Odegaard scores for Arsenal against Wolves. Credit: Alamy

Once Arsenal got their noses in front, they never felt in danger of letting it slip. Odegaard’s second gave them a handy cushion, but it was one they probably would not have needed. Which illustrates further how this Arsenal side has grown. Perhaps they won’t finish the season as champions, but they are playing with the requisite authority.

And if not them, who?

Manchester City, obviously. But throughout the next six weeks, Arsenal can buzz off not only from their win tonight but City’s defeat at lunchtime.

Everyone has been anticipating City hitting top gear, much like we’ve all been expecting Arsenal to fade. The champions may well put their foot down, even if they have a devilish run of games after a World Cup which affects them more than anyone else. They will have to because this Arsenal side are the real deal.

Read more: Arsenal: Ranking every signing made by Arteta and Emery since Wenger left in 2018

 

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