Three of the teams in Arsenal’s Champions League group are common from 2011-12 but the introduction of Napoli in place of Olympiacos has made this a genuinely tough group. That and Dortmund’s form last season has made Marseille to be the least likely team to come out of this group in the eyes of many. But don’t forget the Germans were very highly rated a couple of years ago too but the French club showed their mettle to secure qualification to the next round.
Marseille don’t concede many goals and that means they don’t lose many games. Only one goal was scored in the two games between the clubs from the 11-12 season, Ramsey’s injury time winner at the Stade Velodrome. There’s been a change of manager since then but Elie Baup’s side are as well organized and structurally sound as Deschamp’s team were. Their back four work well as a unit and the two midfielders, Romao and Imbula, offer physicality and discipline in front of them.
Neither of their two defensive midfielders is particularly adventurous but the left-footed Imbula, although often the deepest midfielder in the side, does sometimes drive forward with the ball and is pretty graceful at it. Most of their offensive threat will come from the guile and horizontal movement of Valbuena and the pace and trickery of the wide players, who often line up as inverted wingers. That means the right-footed Payet cuts inside from the left while Ayew does so from the right. Thauvin is another exciting addition but we’ll have to see whether he gets a start in this game. All three are good dribblers and will trouble the defenders if isolated one-v-one. They also possess a powerful, if somewhat inconsistent, shot.
Up front, Gignac is a bit like Giroud in terms of his physicality and movement. The striker’s finishing hasn’t quite risen to the level many had expected from him but he remains a threat, a bit like Giroud was last season. Arsene will hope this turns out to be one of his off days.
Marseille could be a threat from set-pieces. Valbuena provides excellent delivery and Lucas Mendes has been in good scoring form recently. Both their goals were scored by the defender from set-pieces in the last two games against Toulouse and Monaco and he also had a header cleared off the line against Toulouse.
We’ll have to see if Marseille sit with their two banks of four of if they come out and try to express their qualities a bit more. Arsenal have played a very conservative style in their strong run of form away from home, and it includes very limited pressing in the opposition half. Marseille’s defence can be vulnerable if they push up high and there could be some joy in the wider areas for the Gunners if either Payet or Ayew lacks consistency in the defensive work.
The central area will be congested and it will be hard to find space between Romao, Imbula, and the central defenders. However, some of Arsenal’s passing and combination play has been exceptional in recent games and they should be able to create a few chances irrespective of Marseille’s approach.
Wenger does not have many options in midfield or attack so we might see the same six that started against Sunderland take the field at the Stade Velodrome. In that case, I’d really like to see Özil remain central and Wilshere on the left. Interchanging positions when the opportunity arises is completely fine and vital to Arsenal’s approach but if Wilshere stays in the central areas for longer periods it will affect the balance of the side and leave the left back exposed as we saw in the second half against Sunderland.
At the back there is some scope for rotation depending on Vermaelen’s fitness. Monreal could also get a start to give the team some fresh legs.
Some fans also want to see the Gibbs-Monreal pair on the left flank. That could work in theory, and Wilshere could be rested if a full-back takes the midfield role on the left, but I don’t believe either of the full-backs really thinks like a midfielder. They can offer movement and passing up and down the pitch, but we will see very little in the form of instinctive positional rotation from them. This will slow Arsenal’s play down and limit offensive options. So such an approach is more of a defensive choice and seems a bit unnecessary in this game, unless sharpness/fitness of players is a real concern. It seems like a percentage call that the manager has to make.
I’ve not seen teams really press Arsenal high up the pitch thus far this season and it doesn’t seem to be Marseille’s style but they are capable of pushing up if chasing a game. Such a situation could make things very interesting because the Gunners are very strong on the counter-attack but the midfield could struggle to bring the ball out from defence on a consistent basis, resulting in transitions that would be valuable to the hosts.
Flamini’s performance will be important. He doesn’t quite have Arteta’s ability to circulate the ball and his positioning isn’t as intelligent as the Spaniard’s but he does offer greater energy and can chase the ball all night long. He must cut out unnecessary fouls and should try to focus his movement horizontally instead of occasionally looking for forward runs. Ramsey is a vertical player and will at times be away from defensive zones. Arsenal will need a player who can move into wide areas to help the defenders, because Valbuena and Gignac both have a tendency to drift into wider areas from time to time.
I’d like to see,
Szczesny – Sagna, Mertesacker, Vermaelen, Monreal – Ramsey, Özil, Flamini – Walcott, Giroud, Wilshere.
Vermaelen lacks match fitness so it might be too early to give him a start.
The Gunners have been defensively strong when they’ve worked as a unit but if it fails to click the team can look amateurish at the back on occasion. Arsenal haven’t lost in France in the Champions League and they might be able to extend that record as long as they don’t gift goals to the opposition. Nevertheless, it’s important to remember the qualities of Marseille and respect them even when the easier option might be to worry about the perceived qualities of Dortmund and Napoli and classify the French side as the minnows of the group. I have a feeling Marseille will surprise a few people, but hopefully it won’t happen today.Follow @goonerdesi