Football Features

Wolves 3-1 Arsenal: Winners & losers as Emery’s UCL hopes fade

By Ben Green

Published: 21:56, 24 April 2019

Arsenal were dealt a bitter blow to their hopes of finishing in the top four after losing 3-1 to Wolves in the Premier League.

The surprise package of 2018/19 continued to amaze on Wednesday after first-half goals from Ruben Neves, Matt Doherty and Diogo Jota stunned the travelling north Londoners.

The Gunners put up a slight comeback after the restart but Sokratis’ late finish proved to be only a consolation as Nuno Espirito Santo’s side clinched maximum reward and re-established their position in seventh.

It was a pulsating encounter at the Molineux Stadium, but who were the winners and losers?

Winner: Ruben Neves

The Portuguese phenom came up with the truly spectacular once again, enhancing his reputation as a dead-ball specialist after striking a majestic curling effort that left Leno desperately clutching at air.

His silken right foot has been a shining beacon of light this season, inspiring Wolves up the table and ruthlessly exposing a number of established shot-stoppers up and down the country.

Leno became his latest victim, with his strike the first to beat the German goalkeeper from outside the box in the Premier League this season – it was also Neves’ ninth goal for Wolves outside the area.

The 22-year-old was elegance and tidiness personified on Wednesday, with his exploits alongside compatriot Joao Moutinho proving to be one of the league’s best midfield combinations.

Loser: Unai Emery

The weekend’s humbling by Crystal Palace was almost inexcusable, but for the number of changes made to Unai Emery’s backline. Arsenal fans will naturally suggest otherwise, but a back-five consisting of two players who have barely kicked a ball this term – Konstantinos Mavropanos and Carl Jenkinson – can perhaps vindicate conceding three goals.

Of course Shkodran Mustafi bore the brunt – if not all – of that responsibility and criticism for his nightmarish 90 minutes, with the German guilty of defensive aberrations for all three goals, but Emery had the chance to restore some harmony against Wolves, and yet his side were completely ripped apart.

The Gunners had a glorious opportunity to reignite their chances of finishing in the top four, but Wolves ran amok in what proved to be a very sobering experience for Emery, whose side looked bereft of ideas for the majority of the match.

Arsenal have now lost two matches that were almost certainly penciled in and earmarked as three points in their quest to re-establish their status in the Champions League, but in almost typical Arsenal fashion over the past few seasons, the club once again look like they have faltered at the last few hurdles.

Winner: Matt Doherty

Doherty is the archetypal modern wing-back with his buccaneering runs and relentless energy able to stimulate the Wolves flank, but it’s not just his ability to consistently surge up and down the byline at full gallop; his threat in the final third adds a significant potency to his side’s attack.

The 27-year-old has come of age this campaign, and he marked the evening’s encounter with his fourth goal in the league, and eighth direct contribution.

With Doherty’s side a goal to the good, they refused to sit back and retain their slender lead, instead they went for the jugular. Wolves wanted a bloodbath and that’s exactly what they got in the first half, tearing Arsenal to shreds.

Doherty was the man responsible for doubling the host’s advantage, glancing a superb header off a modicum of scalp into an empty net after Leno raced out into no man’s land. Doherty – like many of his teammates – has seen his stock skyrocket this season, and Wolves will have a massive job fending off interest for their prized assets this summer.

Loser: Granit Xhaka

Arsenal fans would have been buoyed to see the haphazard Mohamed Elneny on the bench, even excited by the prospect of seeing the destroyer-creator partnership of Lucas Torreira and Granit Xhaka in full swing once again.

That acquaintanceship has blossomed at times this season, even flourished, but on Wednesday, the formidable central midfield triumvirate of Wolves were too hot to handle – and Xhaka in particular had a night to forget.

The Switzerland international was controlled at times, but his duck for Neves’ free-kick would have left footballing purists wincing at the sight of a leading figure not putting his body on the line.

He then followed up with a costly error that gifted Wolves a third before half-time, with Espirito Santo’s men capitalising on a loose ball from the midfielder. Incidentally that is Xhaka’s third error leading to a goal in the league this season, the most of any outfield player – even his late assist failed to make amends for that unwanted statistic.

Winner: Nuno Espirito Santo

The giant-killers strike again. This was a performance indicative of the type of season Wolves are having; emblematic of the type of football Espirito Santo espouses in the West Midlands: playing without fear.

To play without fear means approaching every match with the same attitude, same approach, and ultimately same mentality. And that is exactly what Wolves have been doing all season, with Espirito Santo seldom tinkering with his personnel, and almost never tweaking his philosophy.

The 3-5-2 formation has become Santo’s signature system, the hallmark of his success at the Molineux, and that structure has yielded an almost incomprehensible 16 points off the top six – not to mention knocking Liverpool and Man Utd out of the FA Cup as well.

That ‘big six’ record is the third best in the league, behind only Liverpool and Man City, which is an extremely commendable feat for any side outside that perennial cartel, not to mention a newly-promoted club. Should Espirito Santo retain his key players this summer, Wolves could seriously disrupt the league’s status quo and challenge for a top six finish next season.

Loser: Bernd Leno

The German shot-stopper had a very forgetful evening, conceding three goals to Wolves’ first three shots on targets, letting in his first goal from outside the box in the league this season, and also allowing Jota’s shot to slip aimlessly under his arms for the third goal.

It was another horror-showing from one of Arsenal’s defensive figures; Mustafi on Sunday, Leno three days later. The 27-year-old has been a sound signing since relocating from the Bundesliga last summer, quickly supplanting the ageing Petr Cech while offering a more modern approach between the sticks.

His ball-playing ability, while key for Emery’s system, is pretty much redundant if his saving ability isn’t up to scratch. Leno has proven himself this season, but tonight he fell well below the standards expected of him.