10 away wins in a row! That could have been a potential banana skin but Arsenal’s experience and patient approach saw them through to a massive result.
It was interesting that Wenger went with his settled eleven and didn’t introduce either Vermaelen or Monreal into his starting line-up. That was a mark of respect for the opponent. In the same vein Elie Baup showed respect for Arsenal by using both his wide players in a highly restricted role. It was a tense game and could, on another day, have ended in a stalemate.
The hosts had the upper hand for most of the first half. Their momentum was built on the foundation of a strong defence. A thought that struck me at half time was,
Any team can line up eight players in two banks of four. That, in itself, doesn’t mean much. Marseille got the spacing between the players spot on, and they made the right choices to close down space effectively in order to negate the impact of Arsenal’s natural fluid style. The Gunners were really struggling to find any incision.
The visitors had only two main attacking options in the first half. A ball in-behind for Walcott, which seemed threatening in the opening minutes but was dealt with subsequently. And some crosses from wide on the right that were also cleared with ease by the hosts.
On the other side, Marseille were finding space down the flanks, particularly behind Sagna. Valbuena was playing in front of the midfield line of four and often made runs towards the flanks to convert defence into attack. Gignac also did that from time to time.
Marseille created enough unsettling moments and, as stated above, could have got a goal on another day. But their style of play and qualities of players is such that they will not trouble the big teams often enough to be considered a consistently serious threat at the top level.
Valbuena was their key player but he couldn’t do enough to put his team ahead. Another thought I had after the game was,
Despite their dominance in the first half, Marseille’s only two shots on target during that period came in the first three minutes. Their game lacked efficiency as they relied on the wide areas almost exclusively. Baup used his wingers on their regular flanks. I thought this was more to facilitate compact defending than to promote their offensive skills. Having them on the opposite flanks and cutting inside could have created better chances in central areas but that would also have left the team exposed on transitions. It seemed like a safe choice from the manager but one that limited their attacking potential.
Of course, the problem for him was that Valbuena isn’t the type of player who can control the game from deeper areas and take up serious defensive responsibility. If he could do that, either Payet or Ayew might have had a chance to take more liberties in the Arsenal half. Another related issue was that they lacked a player who could drive at opposition defence during quick transitions. A lot of their attacking momentum was slowed down when they got boxed into wider areas. Valbuena was usually higher than the others without the ball and he tended to drift wide instead of going at the heart of Arsenal’s defence. Gignac getting caught off-side when a ball in-behind was on didn’t help matters either.
When they did create some sort of an opening in the middle their players didn’t have enough decisive quality to make the difference. Valbuena’s chance in the 19th minute is a good example as was Fanni’s miss early in the second half. Theo and Ramsey scored from comparable situations.
The second half was different. Initially it seemed to me that the Gunners were deliberately conservative on their left flank in the first half but Wenger’s comments suggest that was not the case.
I felt we were a bit within ourselves in the first half, a bit timid, and Marseille were more mobile and first on the ball…
I felt we didn’t change sides enough in the first half and didn’t find Jack or Özil enough. But Marseille defended very well and stopped us from playing through the lines. We didn’t go in enough behind and overall there was not enough purpose in our game. I insisted more on that at half-time.
Look at the crosses comparison above and you’ll see there was practically nothing from the left side in the first half. Even the passes in the final third were of the conservative variety on the left with more verticality on the right. This changed in the second period.
Gibbs was decisive and passes to and from the full-back corroborate this argument.
Most of the passes he received in the first half, even those higher up the pitch, were of a flat/square variety. These are usually conservative, safer passes designed to keep possession and recycle the ball. There wasn’t much in the form of penetration or verticality. Even in the second half most of the passes were square and safe, which makes sense, but there were enough passes that brought him into influential attacking positions as he ran onto balls in space.
Passes made by the Englishman into the final third also had greater purpose.
The difference wasn’t earth shattering and it didn’t turn the game around to the extent that Arsenal became the outright dominant side, but it was decisive enough. Apart from a couple of Walcott moments early on in the first half, there was very little offensive threat from Arsenal in the first half. In contrast, most of the chances created in the second period were high quality ones. These include, apart from the goals, shots by Wilshere, Gibbs, and Özil from the left side.
On the basis of this performance it seems safe to say that Marseille will not be pushovers in this group. But it will be surprising if they go too far in the tournament even if they do get through the group because their attack lacks the level of efficiency and diversity needed at this level unless they take a high level of risk and liberate their wingers, which would then affect the defensive shape and the balance of the side.
Szczesny: Handled the shots on target fairly well. Had one moment of communication gap with Mertesacker and one occasion when he came out and barely got a ball that seemed easy enough to collect. Typically adequate performance behind a defence that shielded him well.
Sagna: He got some space on the right in the first half but there weren’t sufficient targets in the box. That cross for Wilshere in the second half was superb. Work rate on the flank was commendable given the number of times he had to chase back.
Mertesacker: I liked the way he covered the flank when Sagna was up the pitch. Used his reach intelligently and prevented opponents from getting in behind or reaching the byline. It did enough to slow the play down for help to arrive. Passing was reliable, made a number of vital interventions in and around the box, and received a boot to the face for his offensive intent! That mix up with the keeper could have been expensive. Once he started to, he should have taken responsibility and booted the ball away cleanly. Seemed to me Szczesny’s call put him in two minds and led to that horrible outside edge to first slip.
Koscielny: Had a relatively more comfortable game than Mertesacker but his covering wasn’t as effective. The chance for Fanni, for instance, came from his side of the pitch. Passing was more adventurous and less accurate than his partner. Surprisingly, went on a run deep into the opposition half when the team was leading by a goal.
Gibbs: MotM in my opinion. Defensive work was exceptional, including that massive off-the-line clearance, even though he had less support than Sagna on the other end. Made good choices with his positioning and passing and provided the ball for both the goals.
The back four had a challenging game but they did a good job for large periods. There were a few mistakes but those happen to all the teams. Look at Ferdinand’s mistakes against Leverkusen, for instance. Once again the Gunners limited the clear cut chances created by the opponents and this automatically increased their chances of winning the game.
Ramsey: Very close second for the MotM. Another humongous effort from the Welshman, easily doing the work of two midfielders. A bit lucky with the goal, and a tad unfortunate to concede the penalty. Defensive work was top class, including that tackle at the edge of the box that made me jump from my seat.
Özil: As discussed here, the German isn’t the type of player who is very comfortable in dropping deep and receiving the ball straight from the defenders, something that Rosicky does well, for instance. Add to that the fact that Marseille really compressed spaces in their half and it was always going to be a hard game for him to influence. There were some glimpses of his talent in a couple of passes for Walcott, that backheel for Gibbs, and the shot at the end that just went wide, but on the whole the performance was one or two notches below his calibre.
Flamini: Another decent game from the Frenchman as he kept things tidy in midfield and offered energy to move into wide areas when the team needed bodies. Passing was more reliable than it has been in earlier games.
Wilshere: As Wenger stated, in the first half he wasn’t involved in the game as often as one would have liked, although that outside of the boot chip towards Walcott was sumptuous. Did show greater discipline in hugging the flank and that helped Gibbs, but his lack of defensive awareness meant it wasn’t always enough. Not his best game but was another opportunity to learn.
It was a mixed bag for the midfielders but they didn’t make any mistakes and worked hard to support the defence. Eliminating mistakes at this level can be very useful. Ramsey’s qualities made a big difference.
Walcott: Good to see him get off the mark for the season after a few missed chances in previous games. And what a goal it was! Superb technique and concentration. Had a chance early on when it seemed he was pulled back, but over time he’ll have to develop the strength to shrug off that challenge. Decent defensive work too.
Giroud: Was hardly ever free from the attentions of the defenders. Didn’t receive any notable service except for that corner he headed wide. Worked hard for the team but this game showed areas where he still has to improve to contribute at this level.
The attackers had an average game but the first goal made a big difference and it was down to individual quality.
Subs: Monreal didn’t have to do much defending and Miayichi’s appearance was only for the statisticians.
Wenger: His experience and quality at this level shows through not only in Arsenal’s performances but the choices of the opposing managers. If the result had been achieved with a bit more rotation it would have been that much sweeter.Follow @goonerdesi