In a game that was set back 24 hours, Wolverhampton Wanderers made like the staff of the London Underground and went on strike. Not literally of course, but metaphorically. Just as the tube workers stood firm, refused to budge and put their own interests ahead of others in order to prove a point, so did the boys in gold and black on their visit to the Emirates Stadium to compound a miserable week for the majority of clubs with European interest in the top 6 of the Barclays Premier League.
Whilst Arsenal had found joy on the road in their previous tie – a 2-1 late victory over Aston Villa, Wolves were busy leaving their fans with little Christmas cheer taking just a solitary point from two consecutive home games against teams in and around their current standing.
The 24 hour setback meant a rare treat for the players as they enjoyed Christmas day off. Whether it was a little too much of the old eggnog or the likelihood that the mundane Christmas television had frazzled a few brain cells, but Mick McCarthy never to be outdone, dipped into his sack of tricks once more to provide another questionable team selection. Call it a hunch maybe, but young winger Anthony Forde (who isn’t even Wolves’ most promising youth talent) was thrust into the limelight to start his first ever professional game for the club – away at Arsenal, in the Premier League. Great news for the kid and a Christmas present from his manager that was wholesomely received. However the supporters were once again left to ponder the workings of their manager; firstly what was the justification to bump the youngster with zero experience up the pecking order ahead of Adam Hammill who most Wolves fans are growing weary of being refused a chance to see his obvious talent? Adlene Guedioura is another who should feel aggrieved at this surprise decision. The central midfielder was also overlooked again in favour of a move which saw out and out winger Stephen Hunt moved out of position into the centre of the park, begging the question as to why the manager’s reaction to his recent run of poor form had prompted a change of position rather than a well earned spell on the bench. Sylvan Ebanks-Blake, the returning goal scorer against Norwich one week earlier was also banished to the substitute ranks in favour of switching to a more conservative 4-5-1 formation. The hosts opted for the winning goal scorer in their last outing Yossi Benayoun alongside Gervinho and the goal machine himself Robin Van Persie in attack whilst shortages in defence meant that Arsenal started with essentially four centre backs across their back four with Thomas Vermaelen and Johan Djourou filling in at full back.
So to the action. Wolves set out very much to contain as expected, whilst Arsenal typically enjoyed the lion share of possession aiming to break down a determined Wolves resistance with their short, patient pass and move ideology. The visitor’s game plans, team talks, tactics and preparation bought them a full eight minute reprieve before it was time for a re-think. Wolves so as to abide by the hopeful expectations of their travelling supporters were determined to have a go and put a few promising attacks together early on, little did they know that this was all a part of the Arsenal plan to lure them into a false sense of security. The Gunner’s broke like the Arsenal of old and within three passes had gone from box to box. The Wolves advance was quelled as Rosicky found Benayoun over midfield. Wolves fans would have justifiably felt the worse when another case of naïve defending came to fruition as Roger Johnson broke the line to close down the Israeli midfielder whilst Karl Henry (the ‘anchorman’) stood idly by as much of a spectator as those who had paid for seats. Gervinho lost his marker Zubar on the diagonal who opted for the lazy option and instead of tracking the attacker’s run, frustratingly jogged back with one hand in the air in hope of an offside decision that wasn’t to be. Gervinho kept his cool dribbling around the advancing goalkeeper Hennessey and slotting home left footed past a helpless Christophe Berra.
So where do Wolves go from here? 82 minutes left in a game, trailing away from home against a Champions League side rejuvenated and like a shark that smells blood. It was going to be a sure fire test of Wolves’ character and resolve as their fans pondered if McCarthy unlike the best part of the season so far, could execute a ‘Plan B’.
With positivity now the only option for the trailing visitors, Ronald Zubar continued in the vein of attacking full back bursting up the right wing and through two challenges before executing a one-two exposing the Arsenal offside trap. The low driven cross was eventually cleared but the signs were good for the visitors.
The Stephen Ward and Matt Jarvis partnership down the left continued to thrive as the two interchanged passes before crossing against Djourou for a corner. The resulting corner was headed clear only to Stephen Hunt on the edge of the area who to the frustration of the travelling support, opted to pass backwards rather than take pot shot on goal.
By now even the most ardent of supporter realised that Wolves must strike soon as chances in these games are evidently few and far between, their anxiety heightened by the threat of another incisive counter attack from the opposition. Not to be outdone, the enthusiastic right back Zubar again found him-selves the furthest Wolves player forward as he rode two challenges, got a kick in the thigh for his troubles but persevered into the Arsenal penalty area before the ball was taken off his head and he appeared to take a kick in the face from the Arsenal defender. Both rash challenges went unpunished as a sign of things to come from young referee Stuart Attwell. The ball dropped kindly on the edge of the area for Stephen Hunt once again whose poor connection flew tamely high and wide from another half decent position.
As expansive as Wolves were in their attacking play, they were looking equally inept defensively. On 29 minutes Robin Van Persie collected the ball on the edge of the area and danced around three half-hearted tackle attempts before unleashing that famed left foot with a stinging low drive which Wayne Hennessy tipped around his left hand post.
The Wolves rear-guard then began to dawdle, strangely oblivious to the talent of the opposition as Karl Henry twice took far too long in possession and gave the ball away deep inside his own half allowing the flying Dutchman to attack twice more, the second of which provoked Roger Johnson hack him down on the edge of the area in desperation. The resulting free kick sailed harmlessly over but as the first half drew to a close, Wolves were looking increasingly frail at the back whilst Henry and Hunt were once again providing their own fans with the option to call for the ostracized Hammill and Guedioura. Had it not been for the timely interventions of Christophe Berra and the saves from the Welsh number 1, Wolves would have been dead and buried.
Just as Arsenal had strengthened their grip on the contest so the cruel hand of footballing fate came crashing down upon them. A Nenad Milijas corner was partially cleared once more to Stephen Hunt who to his credit kept getting in the positions even if his production from them was limited. His shot miscued back into the box and as the Arsenal back four moved out, the ball looped onto the head of Steven Fletcher stooped to guide a header perfectly into that minute gap between the keepers reach and the post. It seemed that Lady Luck had finally paid an overdue visit to the Wolverhampton Wanderers camp in this post-Christmas cracker, as the two sides headed for the tunnel on an unlikely even keel.
Into the second half and anyone with even an ounce of foresight could have seen the Arsenal onslaught coming a mile off. With Chelsea, Manchester City and Liverpool already slipping up, Arsene Wenger was likely to do everything in his power to prevent his champions league chasing side from falling victim to the recent hoodoo. Even before the drama and controversy which I will cover in just a moment, the contest essentially became Wayne Hennessey vs Arsenal Football Club, as the hosts lay a red and white siege on the Wolves’ goal.
The French full back Ronald Zubar who is at times all heart and no brains (he will take that as the compliment I mean it to be) was in the wars throughout and eventually required the first substitution of the day and not a moment too soon as he had been kicked from pillar to post. Richard Stearman returned to the side and was soon in equally gung-ho mode, finding himself the only Black shirt in the Arsenal half chasing down a hopeful clearance to no avail.
On a more pleasing note, in the second half the Wolves found the defensive stability and poise which won them all those matches against the ‘big clubs’ last season. They set out their stall with a bank of four and five and although it provided only frustration for the Arsenal fans and the neutral onlookers, Wolves had decided to look after their own interests. They began to concentrate, working as a rigid defensive unit in a ‘we shall not be moved’ ideology which stood strong against wave after wave of Arsenal attack as they appeared determined to take something from this game. As I mentioned it was far from pretty with clearances and last ditch challenges flying in, but it will please the Wolves fans no end who have had to suffer some calamity horror shows from their back four and it’s protectors throughout the season so far. It gave the fans a cause to rally behind and every clearance and full blooded challenge and header was greeted with an incomparable roar from the away section. Christophe Berra and Roger Johnson who have been on the brunt of some much warranted criticism in the past few months, were heroic in their task against the uber-talented Van Persie and co.
I’m not one to join the persecution of the officials. I feel it is a tactic all to easily exploited by Wolves fans and even the manager himself to stray from the points of the bigger picture. I hate to hear the referee blamed for a loss or a goal which was so evidently the result of the teams ineptitudes and it serves only as an excuse to paper over the prominent cracks within the team. However on this occasion, Stuart Attwell turned in a very inconsistent, incoherent, crowd pleasing performance which will be justifiably maligned. With the Wolves fans still unforgiving of his lack of action after seeing Ronald Zubar get a kick in the thigh which resulted in his untimely exit from the game, they were enraged by his pandering to the home side’s antics as the likes of Benayoun and Arteta hit the deck all too easily on occasion. It seemed that the Arsenal players had taken exception to the unethical fortress built around the Wolves goal and were intent on changing the nature of the game by any means necessary, a trap which the official was sucked into all too easily. Nenad Milijas was shown a straight red card for an innocuous challenge which he attempted with just the one foot that never left the ground and seemingly got the ball on the edge of the Wolves penalty area. The red card produced by Attwell was as questionable as the ‘phantom goal’ which he became notorious for allowing some years earlier and only sought to incense the Wolves players and staff further as it came just moments after two rash challenges of a much more violent nature from Alex Song which only drew a yellow from the man with the cards.
If anything this only served to intensify the Wolves players and justify their cause to hold out by hook or crook for an unlikely point. Stephen Hunt was taken off with foresight to his notorious temperament as Guedioura and Doyle replaced himself and Anthony Forde.
Stephen Ward was caught unawares turning on the ball in his own area but Rosicky awarded him a reprieve firing wide with his shot. The home side’s patience was wearing thin but they stuck to their beliefs as a chess game unfolded with Wenger trying desperately to break down the Wolves’ stern resistance introduced attackers Chamakh and Arshavin from the bench. Per Mertesacker lost his markers at the back post but his point blank header was saved by Hennessey who returned to action shortly after to beat away a venomous Van Persie free kick after another questionable decision went against the visitors. The volume was cranked up inside the Emirates as the home fans anxiety grew with every superb save from the Wolves keeper. Van Persie wriggled free in the area and drive smartly low in an attempt to wrong foot Hennessey who was the hero once more as he saved with his legs and pounced on the ball as it trickled ominously close to the goal line.
The Wolves back line now consisted of all nine remaining outfield players and the headed and hoofed valiantly to keep the home side at bay whilst having to contest with the lively home support and the unpredictable nature of the official. A timely tackle by Christophe Berra on 88 minutes as Van Persie was poised to strike from the centre of the box was another feather in the cap of the Scotsman who was warrior-like throughout.
If only to compound the drama inside the stadium and further the Wolves’ complaints for some dodgy officiating, Stuart Attwell found six fantasy minutes of added time from a game which had no stoppages of any concern. The Arsenal attack grew weary and the away side stood gallant and bold and held on for a hard fought 1-1 draw.
The Wolves and Wales goalkeeper Hennessey will rightly take his fair share of the plaudits following a performance which will really put him on the map. Statistically the ‘most worked’ goalkeeper in the entire league, Hennessey has soldiered on in the face of adversity and at times been the sole reason that Wolves have lost by just the odd goal rather than five or six.
Of course, it wasn’t pretty – far from it. But for the Wolverhampton Wanderers faithful a draw from the Emirates Stadium, given the circumstances and the fact they finished a man short, they will take every single day regardless of the methods. An encouraging sign and reason for future optimism was without a shadow of a doubt the much improved Wolves efforts, moreover in the second half, without the ball. The back four regained a solidity, togetherness and stubborn nature which has long since been forgotten at Molineux but its return will be welcomed with open arms. Arsenal will feel hard done by, the press will call it ‘smash and grab’ but in this instance everyone connected with the Wolverhampton club should care less. The odds were stacked insurmountably against them, but they came through it with sheer perseverance to the cause and a concentration which is essential to defending in this most unforgiving of leagues. This result rounded off a surprise week in the EPL as Manchester City, Liverpool, Chelsea and now Arsenal were all held to draws by lesser opposition – a fact that will leave Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur fans ecstatic as they were the only teams in the European hunt to win on this yuletide bonanza of football.
The only addition to the result is that I cannot stress enough the importance of building on the extreme high that they will find themselves on right now. This result and performance should only act to galvanize the squad and they know must take what they have shown they can do so well and execute it with equal determination in the tough schedule that lays ahead.