In Germany, they christen the team top of the Bundesliga at Christmas die Herbstmeisterschaft, the winter champions. While Arsenal mirroring what, in effect, is nothing more than a claim to fame in the Premier League is practically meaningless to Mikel Arteta, it is a milestone Arsenal have not managed since 2007. Martin Ødegaard scored twice in victory at Wolves as Arsenal offered a reminder heading into the World Cup break that they are in undeniably rude health. Wolves, meanwhile, need Julen Lopetegui to use that period to revive their season.
Arteta will have welcomed his former mentor Pep Guardiola enduring a rare off-day, with Manchester City’s shock defeat at home by Brentford guaranteeing Arsenal top spot at Christmas. For Arsenal, the challenge at kick-off was to not only admire the view at the summit but to return to winning ways and subsequently stretch their legs. They thought they had got off to a flyer when Gabriel Jesus killed Gabriel Martinelli’s cross and then leathered in with his next touch, only to be flagged offside. Jesus also hit the crossbar before the break after latching on to a Bukayo Saka pass but the Wolves defence again outsmarted the striker and the linesman again raised his flag.
Results elsewhere may have been kind but this game felt like it was set up to test Arsenal. Granit Xhaka went down feeling queasy after a couple of minutes and departed after a quarter of an hour to be replaced by Fábio Vieira. Ben White’s annoyance at a Wolves goal-kick and not an Arsenal corner being awarded midway through the first half led him to underarm the ball in the direction of the assistant referee Harry Lennard, earning him a ticking off from the referee, Stuart Attwell. But Attwell was lenient moments later when Ødegaard tugged at the shirt of João Moutinho on halfway. Wolves, perhaps buoyed by Arsenal’s frustrations, seemed to grow in confidence.
At times Wolves’s interim manager, Steve Davis, a boyhood fan who used to watch games from the South Bank, coaxed Gonçalo Guedes and Adama Traoré into position as Wolves put bodies behind the ball. It was a task they were not always overly enamoured with, but they had their moments going forward too. Guedes thrashed a shot over after Gabriel Martinelli’s loose touch allowed Wolves to counter and on the verge of half-time, the Wolves striker curled wide via the despairing Gabriel Magalhães’s shin after intercepting William Saliba’s blind back pass. Saliba could not apologise quickly enough.
For Davis, this game represented his last in temporary charge with Lopetegui, who paid a visit to the Wolves training ground on Friday, officially starting work on Monday. A few minutes before kick-off Lopetegui embarked on a lap of the pitch, beating his chest and giving supporters singing his name the thumbs up before taking his seat in the stands. Jeff Shi, the Wolves chairman, said eventually landing Lopetegui – he twice turned down the job, once in 2016 and more recently in the aftermath of Bruno Lage’s sacking because of his father’s ill-health – felt like destiny.
Arsenal scoring also felt somewhat inevitable. They had done so in every league game this season and when Vieira squared the ball after picking up Jesus’s pass inside the box Ødegaard could not miss, the Arsenal captain tapping in with Saka queueing up behind him.
Guedes skittled a free-kick at Aaron Ramsdale just after the hour but Arsenal were now up and running and went in search of a second goal. Jesus, who led the line superbly, held up two Wolves centre-backs and almost laid the ball on a plate for Ødegaard, only for Toti Gomes to heroically intervene at the back post.
Arsenal doubled their lead on 75 minutes. Martinelli pinched the ball by the corner flag from the teenage Wolves substitute Dexter Lembikisa, making his league debut, and handed the baton on to Oleksandr Zinchenko, who drilled in a cross from the left. Martinelli took a touch and stabbed a shot at goal, prompting José Sá to save with his right boot, only for Ødegaard smack the ball into the corner in with his left. Arteta whirled his right hand around in celebration, another sweet victory secured. “We are top the league, we are top the league,” the Arsenal fans crowed.