As sure as the sun going down in the evening, as certain and inevitable even, as death, is a positive Wolves performance against the Top Six. It is a magnificent quirk of our season that we seem so sure of ourselves in this company and yet so utterly uncomfortable against the bottom six, like a Grade B snob, with a charm and wit that woos the elite, but can’t relate to those that are trampled underfoot. What a wonderful predicament to be in, that we seem to have it all figured out against the best, and have the opportunity to figure it all out against the worst.
In many ways this game was much like some of the other games we’ve had against the chosen ones, but it also wasn’t the same either. For a start, Arsenal actually looked pretty good to begin with. To be quite honest, they’re a nice team to watch, but hey, it’s Arsenal – what do you expect, if not pretty football? Mesut Ozil, Alex Iwobi, Lucas Torreira, Alexandre Lacazette and Henrikh Mkhitaryan are all lovely footballers to watch and much of the first twenty minutes was quite easy on the eye. They seemed to be doing the hokey-cokey with our penalty area at times – in, out, in out, shaking it all about. But realistically they were about as threatening as a nursery rhyme as well. Wolves’ impenetrable shell of a defence was back in business, at ease with itself after a couple of uncharacteristically shoddy displays, notwithstanding the Brighton game which essentially involved no defending at all.
Going the other way, we weren’t up to much though. The ball just seemed to squirm from our grasp every time we got near it. Raul Jimenez, whose chest almost acts like a virtual hammock to catch the ball in at times, was as adhesive as a pig covered in grease. Sometimes though, football requires someone to inflict their personality and force of will on a game in order to turn it in their favour. Much is made of controlling the controllables and minimising the random nature of the game which can be a team’s undoing, but how much can a manager do once players are out on the pitch? He has set up his team, given them their instructions, instilled his methods and given some kind of motivational spiel to prepare them mentally. But once they’re out there, it’s out of Nuno’s hands now.
This is when you require players with a sense of responsibility. The kind that Arsenal seemed to lack entirely – except for Granit Xhaka, who likes to take responsibility for creating chances for the opposition. In stepped Diogo Jota.
The moment everyone recalls the game turning on its head was relatively innocuous in terms of the tangible impact it had. Ainsley Maitland-Niles had looked pretty accomplished on the right-flank for Arsenal and he was making headway once more. Jota, who had no real business running back so deep into his own half, charged his way in support of Jonny who had confronted him, buffeted Maitland-Niles off the ball and proceeded to run back up the field, with said ball, before being hounded out of play for a throw-in, all at a speed and intensity that would have sent any ordinary person into cardiac arrest immediately.
It sent the crowd into relative raptures, for what was ultimately quite a non-descript piece of football. Man runs back, wins ball, runs forward, ball goes out of play. But the simple thrill of watching Jota marauding his way up the field, past some apparently elite footballers, on what is now a trademark run of his, just gets people going. The crowd was lifted and everytime he picked up the ball we were willing him on and on to drag us up the pitch so that we could make more of his endeavours. The next time he did, we took the lead.
Of course it wasn’t Jota who gave us that lead, but the original wonderkid from Porto, Ruben Neves. Neves, who despite the assertions of the Sky commentators, has not looked like scoring from distance in a very long time. The dead ball is a slightly different beast though and there was an odd air of expectancy around as he stepped up. Bernd Leno, as we later found out, had not been beaten from outside the box all season, and he’d had an especially good game against us at The Emirates. But Neves is nothing if not confident in his own ability and that familiar straight run at the ball, the head overcompensating somewhat by arching way beyond its normal position when a player strikes the ball to generate the dip and the pure, pure technique Neves generally exhibits all came together in a wonderful manner with an exceptional end result. We certainly had our foothold now.
Yes, we were ahead but we’re in the AW era now – After Wembley. The BW era was synonymous with unassailable leads, but our defending of late has been laced with uncertainty. It was time to put the pedal to the metal, rather than retreat and how we did it. Left side, strong side was the catchphrase for George Elokobi and Matt Jarvis in years gone by but Jonny and Jota would be more than happy to take that mantle now. Jonny was having one of his best games of the season, especially going forward and seemed inspired by his teammate to run and run and run, to the point where at times I was slightly confused as to who had the ball.
It was another foray down the left which led to the corner that produced the goal. Another short one was taken and another devilish delivery into the corridor of uncertainty created havoc, with Leno particularly culpable as Doherty only needed to nod the ball in. Wing-back, to wing-back, a goal Nuno would have been proud of and a favour returned from the Southampton game earlier in the season.
All that was really left to do from an attacking perspective was for Jota to get himself on to the scoresheet and he would not be denied. The goal was him in a nutshell – power, pace, deftness to take him past Sokratis Papastathopoulos and a finish that may not have been unerring, but he just wasn’t going to be denied last night and Leno duly obliged to that demand.
3-0 at half time. Some of us may have flashed back to that afternoon in 2003 when we were on the receiving end of that scoreline, as is our wont to do, but we’re too obdurate to allow ourselves to get into that kind of situation. Wembley does not strike twice with Nuno and his men and I’m sure this would have been the message he sent the players out with for the second half. There were more goals to be had I’m sure, especially having witnessed one of the great Molineux individual 45-minute performances from Jota, a man who is no doubt writing himself onto the notepads of many a sporting director across Europe.
There was one more goal, one to berate rather than savour, but a 40-year-hoodoo was put to bed. Arsenal may not strike the fear into hearts that they had done in the peak Wenger years, but the names on the scorelines remain as powerful as ever. This was emphatic and comfortable all in one and it spoke volumes about our credentials for the ‘best of the rest’ position.
We need to cement that this weekend.