Arsenal move into first but aren’t celebrating: The grind only gets worse now
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The Premier League title race has taken an attritional turn, and Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta will hope going top of the table can breathe new life into his team.

The Gunners secured a 2-0 win at Wolves on Saturday night but, despite the comfortable score line, it had “last man standing” feel by the end given the circumstances around it. Wolves were hampered by wretched injury list and Arsenal were running on empty this week after losing to Aston Villa and then succumbing to Bayern Munich in the Champions League.

This was one of those occasions where the result was paramount: Arsenal simply had to win, no matter how, to reverse the feeling that their season was slipping away in a matter of days.

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Goals from Leandro Trossard and Martin Odegaard ensured the Gunners ended a game they controlled for long periods with the points they deserved but this was a laboured, tired display — perhaps inevitably so. Credit to the Gunners for finding a way because the grind is real right now.

Pep Guardiola spent the aftermath of Manchester City’s FA Cup win over Chelsea at Wembley criticising the “unacceptable” scheduling of their game on a Saturday after a gruelling Champions League exit on Wednesday. Arsenal faced a similar turnaround — without extra-time but with the additional travel in returning from Germany — and Liverpool must cope with a Thursday-Sunday turnaround at Fulham in the next 24 hours.

“When you compete in European competition, every team has to compete in the same way,” said Arteta. “You cannot have a team that hasn’t played for seven days, or three days before and has more recovery time and then you have to play in the Premier League and the FA Cup. It is not right. If you look in any angle it’s not right.”

The Gunners opted to stay an extra night in Munich and stage a recovery session at their team hotel before flying back on Thursday afternoon.

“I think we had an hour or two hours of sleep,” said Arteta. “Wake up, start to talk about Wolves, then about what the players need, how we’re going to get the into the best mental and physical condition to win this game and to beat them.

“The boys were unbelievable, the staff was unbelievable. It’s a joy to work with them. We realised that if you want to be in the big competitions fighting for the Champions League, fighting for the Premier League and the level that requires you have to do something special. You have to be something special and love to compete and expose yourself when it’s needed to get the outcome that you want. I thought the boys did that really well today.”

And things don’t get any easier this week. The Gunners host Chelsea on Tuesday before next Sunday’s north London derby at Tottenham, who will have had 15 days without a game. Arsenal will have played four games in that time.

Arteta’s reluctance to rotate heavily is both a testament to the consistency of those he selects but also a contributing factor to the fatigue they exhibit on nights like this. The Spaniard made just three changes to his starting line-up from the Allianz Arena with Gabriel Jesus, Jakob Kiwior and Leandro Trossard coming in. Two of those players, Jesus and Trossard, ended the match in Munich.

“We thought about the possibilities and the way we had to manage the game in relation to the score, the state and what they were proposing,” said Arteta. “We had many options to do that. The ones that played did well and the subs that we made made a huge impact that we wanted.”

Whatever Arsenal’s physical ailments, however, they paled into insignificance compared with Wolves.

Gary O’Neil claimed he had 10 outfield players capable of playing 90 minutes available to him — “probably the worst situation we have been in,” he said. Pedro Neto, Matheus Cunha, Craig Dawson, Nelson Semedo, Jean-Ricner Bellegarde were injured and Rayan Ait-Nouri was only able to play a late cameo here. Wes Okoduwa, 15, was named on the bench while Hee Chan Hwang did at least start but couldn’t last longer than 51 minutes.

Arsenal always looked the more likely to score but approached the task bereft of their usual conviction and intensity. The sloppiness in their passing was mirrored by a carelessness in the rare moments of defending they were required to produce, Jakub Kiwior caught out badly on the half-hour mark as Joao Gomes snatched the ball away before firing in a shot David Raya did well to turn onto the post.

It was a night when Arsenal had to defend resolutely and trust that something positive would happen at the other end, summed up by Trossard swinging his right leg at the ball somewhat hopefully after good work in the box from Jesus. The Belgian was not in control of the shot but it found the top corner via a post, handing Arsenal a lead they rarely looked like relinquishing.

Wolves were palpably bereft of confidence, unable to play with any bravery through central midfield, shunning the forward pass for a safe sideways alternative and, according to O’Neil, suffering from “an unbelievable lack of attacking players,” which reduced them to trying midfielder Mario Lemina at centre-forward late on.

Alt-Nouri showed how vulnerable Arsenal could be with a driving run that met little resistance until the end line but Wolves were simply too depleted to muster anything approaching a sustained spell of pressure. Arsenal ended with Odegaard’s cute stoppage-time finish adding gloss to the scoreline and a sixth consecutive clean sheet away from home in the league, a club-record in the Premier League.

Although the travelling supporters sung about returning to the top of the table, there were no euphoric scenes involving Arteta and his players at the final whistle, no dressing-room selfies for which they have been much maligned in the past.

Perhaps they were too tired. Or, perhaps equally likely, they know the grind is far from over.

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