Cesc Fabregas provoked the wrath of Wolves' players and the Molineux crowd after a challenge on Stephen Ward which led to the full-back being carried off on a stretcher in the closing minutes, but the Spaniard later found unexpected support from home manager Mick McCarthy.
Arsenal were still clinging to Marouane Chamakh's goal after 37 seconds – their fastest-ever in the Premier League – when Fabregas went in late on Ward. The referee, Mark Halsey, appeared to ask his linesman whether the tackle merited a red card. To fierce booing, he flourished a yellow one, which means no retrospective action can be taken against Fabregas.
Chamakh added a second goal in the fourth minute of stoppage time, but Arsenal's win, which kept them within five points of leaders Chelsea and closed the gap on Manchester United, was overshadowed by their captain's indiscretion. McCarthy, having seen Wolves demonised following Karl Henry's lunge on Wigan's Jordi Gomez and a similar episode involving Bobby Zamora at Fulham, surprisingly insisted he had "no problem" with the challenge and would not add to the "amateur dramatic bullshit" surrounding such incidents.
"Fabregas went for the ball," said McCarthy. "It was one of those where two blokes are running at full tilt. Wardy's got a cut leg and Fabregas has been in to apologise. Wardy accepted it like a man. It's like a throwback to the olden days where you got your nose broken in a challenge but then you bought each other a pint in the bar. I just wish everyone would stop whingeing about tackling. Everybody's desperate for me to say it was a bad tackle, but it wasn't. He's late. He's mistimed it. Arsène Wenger apologised to me at the end. I told him I had no problem with it and really appreciated the apology."
The Arsenal manager, having predicted we would see "the real Fabregas" here, maintained the damage to Ward was "completely accidental", saying "that's what Cesc told me". Wenger added: "For a red card you need a reckless or violent challenge. I think the intention of a tackle is very important. Their player has a little cut and may be all right for Saturday."
The managers' accord extended to their verdict on Lukasz Fabianski's display in the visitors' goal. Criticised for his part in Newcastle's winner last weekend, the Pole not only started the moves for both goals with throw-outs but also made a string of athletic stops as Wolves besieged Arsenal in the second half, denying Kevin Doyle his first goal of the season and making what McCarthy called a "fantastic save" from Nenad Milijas just before Chamakh's clincher.
Wolves went into the match as the only team in the Premier League without a clean sheet. Their hopes of rectifying that record ended with Arsenal's first attack, Tomas Rosicky working the ball out to the right from where Alex Song's cross picked out Chamakh for a free header.
Doyle's willingness to chase lost causes gave Wolves an outlet, but with Stephen Hunt and Matt Jarvis hugging the touchlines he tended to be an isolated figure until the second half. Then, pressed back on to deep defence, Arsenal's fluency gave way to fractiousness, although Fabregas, volleying wide after being played in by Rosicky, and Andrei Arshavin, with a drive that smacked the foot of a post, almost doubled the advantage.
Shortly before the hour, after Fabianski went full stretch to touch over Doyle's 25-yard shot, Rosicky cleared off the line from Richard Stearman following the corner. But in the dying seconds, Fabregas put Chamakh through for his eighth goal of the season, adding insult to injury time for Wolves.
Wolverhampton Wanderers (4-5-1): Hahnemann; Foley, Stearman, Berra, Ward (Fletcher, 88); Edwards (Hunt, 8), Mancienne (Ebanks-Blake, 79), Henry, Milijas, Jarvis; Doyle. Substitutes not used Hennessey (gk), Van Damme, Elokobi, Mouyokolo.
Arsenal (4-5-1): Fabianski; Sagna, Squillaci, Djourou, Clichy; Rosicky, Song, Wilshere ( Denilson, 67), Fabregas, Arshavin (Nasri, 90) ; Chamakh (Bendtner, 90). Substitutes not used Szczesny (gk), Van Persie, Walcott, Eboue
Referee M Halsey (Greater Manchester).
Man of the Match Chamakh.
Match Rating 6/10.