This could be the difference between fourth place and frustration. Arsenal looked on the verge of defeat here until Nicolas Pépé, with his first Premier League goal since May, equalized Hwang Hee-chan’s early effort and at that point consolidation of fifth spot hardly seemed the end of the world. It would prevent Wolves leapfrogging them, at least, but much better was to come. Deep into six minutes of injury time, Alexandre Lacazette was freed by slick interplay between Martin Ødegaard and Eddie Nketiah, dinking an effort towards goal. The shot was going wide but José Sá, the away keeper, deflected it in with his right glove and a wild set of celebrations underlined what this meant. Mikel Arteta had promised that their top-four pursuit would be a rollercoaster ride but it remained firmly in Arsenal’s hands.
The horrendous events in Ukraine meant football felt scant consequence in the buildup to this match but, in its specific context, the ramifications for the Champions League race would be significant. Arsenal had squeaked past Wolves at Molineux but the sides were only separated by two points at the outset here, even if the hosts had played a game more.
So Hwang’s opener ratcheted the tension skywards. Arsenal’s defensive security has been admirable in recent months, not least when holding out with 10 men against the same opponents almost a fortnight ago, but they were undone by an uncharacteristically shoddy error from Gabriel Magalhães. The centre-back had been the matchwinner in the previous encounter but here, guarding a long pass down the left as Raúl Jiménez gave chase, he was sloppy. An attempted backpass 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.
Arsenal had already been warned when Romain Saïss diverted past Ramsdale and, having been flagged offside, saw the ensuing VAR review continue for longer than Arteta might have felt comfortable. Their defense was giving space up liberally and, in the 13th minute, Wolves should have gone two up. Jiménez was playing here for the first time since, in November 2020, he fractured his skull in a sickening clash of heads at the clock end; having marauded with intent from the off he profited from a smart through pass from Daniel Podence, who had occupied a clever position on the inside right, but dragged wide when a goal seemed likely.
Having shaken off these episodes, Arsenal did not play badly. A side less adept than Wolves at crowding, blocking and scrambling clear inside their own penalty area would have conceded before half-time. Jose Semedo had made a crucial challenge on Gabriel Martinelli inside the opening half-minute while, in a high-octane spell after the quarter-hour, Alexandre Lacazette screwed wide from a difficult angle and Saïss blocked brilliantly from Ødegaard. Max Kilman did even better to deny Lacazette in the 32nd minute after Kieran Tierney had capitalized on Sá’s misreading of a high ball, while Martinelli stabbed over shortly afterwards.
Emile Smith Rowe’s illness meant Martinelli returned to the side after serving a one-game ban for being dismissed at Wolves’ home. His sending-off was among the recent calls that led Arteta to ask for a meeting with Professional Game Match Officials Limited, a request to which the referees’ body has agreed. The Emirates sawthed with righteous indignation, a powerful tool when used well, at the merest hint of injustice here, but there was little room for griping by the interval. Sá denied Martinelli but Wolves had not been outrageously lucky.
The devilishly clever Podence released Hwang with a sumptuous reverse pass straight after the restart but, as the forward ran out of the room, Ramsale diverted his shot agonizingly wide. It was another reminder for Arsenal that Wolves’ construction can be devastatingly precise.
Arsenal’s became frayed. There was no doubting their workrate, as Lacazette showed when haring back to his own byline to dispossess Joao Moutinho, but Arteta’s discussions with his assistant Steve Round grew increasingly urgent. When they did create a reasonable opening, just before the hour, Lacazette spun onto Martinelli’s cross but was off target again.
Lacazette, whose night was mixed until that last-gasp flourish, won a free-kick 22 yards out after a determined burst but subsequently wasted it. Wolves looked assured, not to mention happy to run down the clock when it suited, and were hardly under siege as the closing stages approached.
Arteta foraged among an outwardly uninspiring set of substitute options and sought a turn from Pépé. Lacazette almost equalised, forcing Sa to parry, and a late storm seemed inevitable. Wolves looked capable of holding out, though, until the Ivorian struck.
His finish was marvelous, turning and finishing in one movement after a cutback from another replacement, Nketiah. Chances came and went at either end in a frantic finish, Pedro Neto and Bukayo Saka coming close, but then arrived the kind of intervention that defines a season.