Left-back, wing-back, right winger, midfielder, scorer, supplier. There are times during a startling rise when it has seemed there is no role Bukayo Saka cannot master. The 18-year-old illustrated the importance of the new long-term contract he signed this week on a landmark occasion for him.
Three days after he signed his first lucrative deal, he scored his first league goal. Along with Alexandre Lacazette’s late strike, it defeated the in-form team of Project Restart and dented their chances of a top-four – or five – finish.
Wolves were alone in not dropping a point or conceding a goal until they encountered Saka. Leicester, Manchester United and Chelsea may have enjoyed his strike. Mikel Arteta certainly did, because this may have ranked as the finest result of his reign.
It required plenty of dogged defending – not always Arsenal’s strength – but Shkodran Mustafi has rarely looked as reliable. Given his inheritance, Arteta is required to be an alchemist. Certainly he showed a golden touch with this substitutes.
One replacement, Joe Willock, set up another, Lacazette, for the clinching goal, taken with masterly expertise after his first touch enabled him to skip past Conor Coady.
Lacazette may soon be consigned to Arsenal’s past. The encouragement for the future in a troubled season has come from Saka and Arteta. Arsenal’s past policies have failed and youth, in both the dugout and on the pitch, offers promise.
Saka is the supplier more often but took his goal in style, dispatching a half-volley beyond Rui Patricio after Kieran Tierney’s cross came off Matt Doherty and fell nicely for him. It was a way of ensuring that Nicolas Pepe, absent as his wife went into labour, was not missed. The winter revelation at full-back filled in on the right of the front three instead, and with some effect.
He meant that, for once, Adama Traore was upstaged by another winger, even if Wolves’ resident menace is never kept completely quiet. Emi Martinez had to save from him in the first few seconds; the winger and Raul Jimenez have combined for 10 league goals already this season but this was a role reversal with the Mexican provided the incisive pass.
Arsenal fielded two left-backs, a policy that makes more sense when Traore is playing. The centre-back David Luiz was still sufficiently worried to drag him down and collect a caution. Knowing Traore is the threat is one thing, stopping him another altogether and when he surged past Sead Kolasinac, his cross was headed wide by a diving Jimenez, just as Leander Dendoncker had missed the target from an earlier centre.
While Arsenal survived trial by Traore; for a heady few seconds they thought it had ended with 35 minutes to go when Traore’s number came up, but it was a mistake and Dendoncker was instead substituted. Diogo Jota came on to give Wolves an attacking trident, sent Traore sprinting clear and saw him clear the bar with a chip when he perhaps should have scored.
But Arsenal showed greater accuracy in front of goal. Eddie Nketiah was preferred to Lacazette initially and would have broken the deadlock but for a terrific save from Patricio, sticking out a left boot to touch his shot on to the post. Lacazette showed a laser-like accuracy with his shot. And just maybe he guided Arsenal, now only three points behind them, back into the race for the Champions League.
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