Arsenal are becoming a statistician's delight as well as a football purist's. Despite losing control after utterly dominating for the first half-hour, they held on yesterday to break their own record of 30 unbeaten Premiership games and equal that of the great Leeds and Liverpool sides of 1974 and 1988 in starting the season without losing any of their first 29 matches. Both those teams won the championship with something to spare and Arsenal, nine points clear, should now go on to do the same.
Increasingly their thoughts - or every-one else's - will begin to turn to emulating Manchester United's 1999 Treble, to which end the next four games will be critical, involving two each against Chelsea (in the Champions' League) and United (Premiership next Sunday at Highbury, then FA Cup semi-final). For now, Arsène Wenger says his players are living "in a bubble" from game to game.
There seemed no danger of Bolton pricking it in gale-force conditions, for their aims are more humble. They would happily have settled for ending a run of five successive defeats in all competitions but, as with Charlton in the previous Highbury game, spirited visitors refused to go quietly and ended up pushing the home side unexpectedly close. Only some shoddy finishing in the second half prevented a repeat of last season's comeback from 2-0 down at the Reebok, which cost Arsenal dear.
"The last 10 minutes it became a bit tense, and we could have been punished," Wenger admitted. "Credit to Bolton, who were much more positive in the second half. But overall it's a great achievement for my players, who've shown an outstanding attitude from the first game of the season." Bolton's manager, Sam Allardyce, was equally proud of his charges for everything except their finishing. "Having been completely outplayed in going 2-0 down, it looked a daunting task, but it was a fantastic turn-round by our boys," he said.
Statistics and records were not the only things in the air. A gusting wind was so fierce that kick-off was delayed for quarter of an hour because of concern about scaffolding opposite the main stand. Home supporters, diverted to a different entrance, would not have been pleased to have missed a kick as the leaders initially made light of the conditions with ridiculous ease. Passes were floated with precision, and movement off the ball was as inventive as ever - aided in this case by Bolton's negligent marking.
Thierry Henry warmed up by shuddering the crossbar from 25 yards, but was for once not involved in the opening goal. It was made by the increasingly impressive Edu with a forward pass to Dennis Bergkamp just inside the penalty area, the Dutchman effecting a clever lay-off and then making space for Robert Pires to curl his shot inside the far post.
Leaving Henry unmarked - never a sensible policy - almost cost Bolton two minutes later, Simon Charlton having to head his shot away. Shortly after that the visitors did not help themselves again, Emerson Thome's back-header under pressure beating Jussi Jaaskelainen but sliding wide of a post.
The goalkeeper thwarted Ashley Cole at the end of another lovely move, but could do nothing to prevent a fine second goal with little more than a quarter of the game played. Henry, played onside by the careless Bruno N'Gotty, and clear on to Pires's pass, unselfishly whipped the ball square for Bergkamp to demonstrate all his finesse with a first-time drive.
As Bolton, with the wind mostly at their backs, had barely managed to keep a ball in play, it was a shock that they came back into the game so vigorously. Four minutes from the interval, Jens Lehmann, who looked uncomfortable all afternoon, did not deal with a left-wing corner, and after N'Gotty's drive was blocked by Lauren, Ivan Campo shot high into the net. Remarkably there might soon have been an equaliser: Henrik Pedersen's cross was met by Stelios Giannakopoulos, whose header clipped the bar.
Even more unexpectedly, this turn of events continued into the second half, two excellent chances being spurned in the opening seven minutes. First Stelios put a cross right on to the head of Davies, who carelessly nudged it well wide. He might still have been affected by this miss 90 seconds later, taking an unnecessary extra touch as Pedersen set him up after an astute pass from Okocha.
The home supporters howled their disapproval, being particularly concerned at Lehmann's inability to take a cross. They were more appreciative of the efforts of Henry, who slowly began to drag his side back to something approaching control. On the hour he took advantage of Campo's miskick to bring a dramatic save from Jaaskelainen, and five minutes later sprinted to the byline and cut the ball back for Gilberto, whose pass was driven too high by Pires.
Fredrik Ljungberg for Gilberto was the obvious substitution, and the Swede should have wrapped matters up soon after coming on, falling over his feet as Bergkamp put him through. But there was one final nasty moment at the other end as Davies headed down Okocha's outswinging cross to Campo, who shot wildly from seven yards.
"The next three weeks are the most important of my career," Wenger said. Records or not, he will want his team to maintain their concentration more effectively. Throwing away two points would have been careless; to lose the title from this position would be unforgivable.
Arsenal 2 Bolton Wanderers 1
Pires 16, Bergkamp 24; Campo 41
Half-time: 2-1 Attendance: 38,053
STATS OF THE DAY
2 Goals 1
6 Corners 1
12 Fouls 18
6/3 Shots (on/off) 2/5
1 (y) Cards 3 (y)
Man of the match Edu (Arsenal). Maintained his outstanding recent form in an uneven home performanceReuse content