There isn’t much to choose between the sides. In the two games over the fortnight, Arsenal and Marseille have shown they are closely matched with the Gunners nicking the away tie late but failing to score at home. Marseille were competitive but couldn’t produce enough in front of goal.
I was a bit surprised with the starting line-up. Wenger left his two best and most consistent players on current form on the bench as Park and Vermaelen came in for RvP and Koscielny. Jenkinson at right back was fairly predictable. I wasn’t expecting many changes and Vermaelen for Koscielny could be considered like-for-like and understandable. But leaving Van Persie out after he’d had a game and a half off recently was unexpected. One can only hope he still isn’t carrying that tightness in muscles that could potentially turn into a problem over the international break.
Nevertheless, it was a strong side and one that was expected to win the game. Credit to Marseille for their tactics and discipline.
Deschamps sent his players out with instructions to press higher up the pitch. That was an approach I’d not have guessed. It worked for the visitors in the first 8-9 minutes as it seemed that Arsenal were caught unawares. The midfield kept pushing up and it was easy for the French side to get into good crossing positions. Arsenal’s defence did well to limit the opponents to half-chances.
After a while Arsenal made some tactical changes. The midfielders, who were being caught away from the defence, dropped back. They players kept the ball on the ground instead of kicking it up and showed composure under pressure. Gervinho started making a number of runs in central areas as the visitors pushed up to press the Arsenal midfield higher up the pitch. Walcott remained in wide areas while Park made runs all over the pitch. The full back on Gervinho’s flank provided width while the one behind Walcott was more conservative. The midfield trio were fluid and interchanged positions but Ramsey got into advanced areas more often than the others. I have been looking for such changes for a long time now so was very pleased to see it all coming together.
The hosts created a number of chances for the rest of the half while restricting the visitors to a handful of bursts on the break that were well defended or resulted in hopeful shots from distance. The telling stat was that Marseille created 3 chances in the opening 8 minutes and the same number in the rest of the half. And those that came later on were further away from goal.
At the other end the Gunners could have done a lot better. Song’s passing in attacking areas was disappointing and ceded possession when better was expected. Park’s running was energetic but needs sharpening and better understanding as he tended to move towards the back post and away from the man on the ball when better intuitive runs could have been more productive. Ramsey missed a couple of decent chances – once when he arrived at the back post but couldn’t hit the target while sliding to connect with a Santos cross, and then, in the best chance of the half, delaying his strike after receiving a great pass from Gervinho on the edge of the box. The Ivorian was a constant menace with his central runs and some from wide areas as well but lacked strength in individual battles against the physically dominant defenders. He got into promising positions all through the game but was brushed off the ball rather easily.
Mandanda was tested twice – one each by Walcott and Gervinho – but those were saves you’d expect the keeper to make. Marseille would have been fairly happy with their defensive effort and the Gunners again failed to utilize the set-pieces.
The opening fifteen minutes of the second half were tight. Arsenal bossed the ball but there were hardly any chances for either side. Around the hour mark the Gunners started tiring. Subsequently the game became stretched and once again Arsenal’s midfield was getting caught away from the defence. Marseille got a lot of space down the wings and produced a number of half-chances. Szczesny wasn’t really tested though as Mertesacker and Vermaelen were immense at the centre of defence.
At the other end the hosts couldn’t create much. Van Persie came on for the ineffective Park while Rosicky was introduced for the visibly exhausted Ramsey. Little Mozart did put Van Persie through on one occasion but De Kapitein’s chip didn’t have enough elevation.
Towards the end Marseille looked more like the team that could snatch something but Arsenal were resolute in the central area in front of their goal.
Both managers will probably feel their side could have won it. I wasn’t very happy with Arsenal’s effort in the attacking third but the number of tactical adjustments were very encouraging as was the performance of the two central defenders. There is a concern over the apparent fatigue and one can only hope the cost won’t be paid against West Brom. The steady trot that the Gunners are on hasn’t turned into a run yet but at least it wasn’t interrupted.
Szczesny: Can’t recall the need for any big saves. Had some communication problems with Vermaelen that resulted in him flapping and getting out of position once or twice and a nervy moment as he came out to head a ball outside the box.
Jenkinson: Very strong in the defensive areas and tracked the runs of Ayew well. There could have been a big chance in the fifth minute if the youngster hadn’t been pressuring the striker into rushing his attempt. Passing and decision making in attacking areas needs to improve.
Mertesacker: Excellent game. MotM in my book. Dominated in the air, read the game beautifully, made a number of timely touches in and around the box.
Vermaelen: Very similar to the his partner. Dominated his area well, made a number of quality tackles, only blemish was his occasional communication gap with the Keeper.
Santos: Made some mistakes at the back, was erratic with his positioning, made useful runs and put in a couple of good crosses, overall defensive effort wasn’t too bad but needs improving.
Marseille got some joy down Arsenal’s flanks but the defenders were dominant in the central areas snuffing out danger before the opponents could capitalize. I thought some of the problems out wide came from leaving the wide players higher up the pitch and it could have worked given the quality of defending in front of goal.
Song: Absolutely dominated individual physical battles, got into excellent defensive positions, handled pressure with composure, needs to do better with his passes in attacking areas especially when he has time.
Ramsey: Not at his usual level from a finishing point of view but he reached the right places regularly. Passing was impressive and sharp in forward areas. Did a fair bit of tracking without the ball as he made up for the wide players staying further up the pitch.
Arteta: Solid shift on the left and bailed Santos out regularly. Steady passing. Tireless understated performance that was vital to the clean sheet.
The midfield took a while to get in the game but controlled it for 50 min or so after that. Song and Arteta deserve credit for their positional play and physical effort at the back. Ramsey probably worked the hardest but must be disappointed with his misses.
Walcott: Got a chance to run at the defence on a few occasions but Marseille made it compact when he reached the defensive third. His early balls weren’t as effective in this game.
Park: Lot of running but not on the same page as some of his teammates. Dropped deep regularly and his attempts at linking play were appreciable.
Gervinho: Was a constant threat with his runs, took up excellent positions centrally and between the lines to receive the ball and break forward, can do better with his final pass, needs to be stronger against the defenders once he gets the ball in and around the box.
The front three were a bit disappointing in this game. Better runs from Park might have made Walcott and Gervinho look impressive. It would be good to see further development of the “wide player making central runs” tactic, especially when counter-attacks are on with the midfield playing deeper. Theo and Gervinho should share this role.
Subs: Van Persie got only one real chance and I don’t blame him for missing it. Did put in a couple of good crosses into the box. Rosicky was tenacious and a bit unfortunate to pick up a booking. Wasn’t as sharp with his passing despite creating the chance for RvP. Arshavin struggled against physically strong opponents and put the team in trouble on a couple of occasions by losing the ball just inside the Marseille half with Santos pushing forward.
Wenger: Picked a strong enough side. First two substitutions were understandable but the introduction of Arshavin when the others were tiring was odd. Arsenal needed a player who could offer more physically rather than an odd moment of creativity. Tactical adjustments must be commended as they are clearly a result of work done in training. While this result was acceptable the real impact will probably be seen on the weekend as some players were exhausted by the final whistle.