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Stalemate as Arsenal edge closer to Champions League progression

Arsenal 0 Marseille 0

It was very much a case of ‘after the Lord Mayor’s Show’ at the Emirates Stadium, as Arsenal and Marseille fought out a goalless draw which edged both sides closer to qualification for the Champions League knockout stages. Arsenal had the better of the chances in an entertaining opening period, but the game petered out after half-time as both sides were ultimately happy to share the points.

Arsène Wenger made three changes from the side which started the remarkable 5-3 win at Chelsea on Saturday. Captain Robin van Persie and in-form defender Laurent Koscielny were rested, with Park Chu-Young and Thomas Vermaelen taking their places. Carl Jenkinson returned at right back.

Szczęsny

Jenkinson – Mertesacker – Vermaelen – Santos

Song – Arteta

Ramsey

Walcott – Park – Gervinho

In the away fixture a fortnight ago, Aaron Ramsey‘s stoppage time winner moved Arsenal to the top of the group, a point ahead of Marseille.

Arsenal shade an open first half

As at Stamford Bridge on Saturday, the first half was an open and entertaining affair. And as they did on Saturday, Arsenal started slowly and could easily have fallen behind early on. The visitors, showing more attacking intent than they did in the entire match at home, carved out three decent openings in the first seven minutes. The best fell to André Ayew, who poked the ball just the wrong side of the near post after a low cross from the right by Loïc Rémy.

Park struggled to find the same wavelength as his teammates (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

Arsenal struggled to assert themselves initially as Marseille pressed hard in midfield. Possession was squandered and good positions came to nothing as the final pass was repeatedly misplaced. With Park Chu-Young looking out of sync with his teammates, most of their attacking threat came from the triumvirate of Gervinho, Aaron Ramsey and Theo Walcott. It was the Ivorian’s dribbling ability which set up Arsenal’s first real chance in the tenth minute. He carried the ball down the middle and released Walcott, whose low cross-shot brought a finger-tip save out of Steve Mandanda.

The visitors’ passing and movement was easy on the eye as they repeatedly stretched Arsenal’s back line. Rémy fired narrowly wide from the edge of the box after a neat one-two with Benoît Cheyrou as Marseille repeatedly targeted Arsenal’s flanks. They profited regularly down André Santos‘ side, while getting nothing out of the inexperienced Carl Jenkinson on the right.

Both Arsenal full backs were prominent in the attacking half of the field though, as the home side gradually started to dominate both possession and chances. Santos floated a dangerous cross to the back post, but a stretching Ramsey couldn’t keep his effort down. Then after Gervinho had seen a fizzing effort beaten out by Mandanda, Ramsey had another shot blocked after he hesitated momentarily. A Walcott cross gave the Wales captain a third chance, but he could not generate enough power in his header.

Arsenal finished the half in the ascendancy, but Marseille had certainly offered enough threat to ensure they were never comfortable.

Meandering to stalemate

The second half started brightly for Arsenal, with Thomas Vermaelen heading over from a Mikel Arteta free kick. But the game soon settled into a more sedate tempo, perhaps reflecting the bigger picture where a draw was an acceptable result for both teams.

Gervinho looked the most likely to provide the necessary spark for Arsenal, but this was one of those nights where his first touch was always too heavy, his passing radar a fraction off and the timing of his runs never quite right. Marseille too offered little more than a sporadic threat. Mathieu Valbuena snatched a difficult half-volley over on the hour, but the French side seemed content to sit back and maintain a solid shape.

Rosický so nearly set up a wonderful goal for van Persie (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

As energies flagged and the game became increasingly disjointed, much of the cohesion vanished from Arsenal’s play. In a rare instant of quality, however, two substitutes combined to nearly prise open the door. Tomáš Rosický’s brilliant through-ball sent Robin van Persie scampering clear, but as the angle narrowed Mandanda stood up tall to clutch his attempted lob.

Marseille, sniffing the possibility of an upset, continued to huff and puff, trying to exploit the space in front of and behind a tiring and increasingly lackadaisical Santos. However, a second half tally of zero shots on target by the visitors – and only one in the entire game – told its own story.

It was fitting that the game should end with Jenkinson galloping forward with the ball at his feet. The young full back had worked tirelessly up and down the right flank all night, putting in the best performance of his nascent Arsenal career.

Victory would have guaranteed Arsenal’s passage to the knockout phase, but with a home game against Borussia Dortmund in the next round they will remain odds-on favourites to qualify with a game to spare. They now host West Brom on Saturday, with the international break to follow.

Post-match reaction and analysis

In his post-match press conference, Arsène Wenger felt his team had lacked a little sharpness:

I felt it was a game where we were not physically at our sharpest. Marseille started stronger than us and after that we got back in the game. In the first half I feel we had opportunities to kill the game. After that we were disciplined, we were willing, but you have to give credit to Marseille – they defended very well. They stopped us from playing and we were not sharp enough to get them out of position. The positives are that we did not concede a goal, Marseille only had one shot on target and overall we know that in the final third we can do better.

He was asked whether Saturday’s win over Chelsea had taken something out of the players:

Emotionally more than physically maybe. It is difficult to be on a high three days later again but we still had opportunities, especially Ramsey in the first half, he had two great chances. Gervinho had a chance, and in a game like that you still expect to take one of these chances.

He defended André Santos:

I am happy when he has the ball. I feel personally he is much better defensively than many people think. He is getting stronger in every game. He is a very intelligent boy who learns very quickly and obviously he has to adapt to the pace of the English game.

And also Park Chu-Young:

He did very well last week. Tonight you could see that he lacked the pace of the game a little bit because he has not played enough games.

Arsenal’s lacklustre performance was disappointing but not surprising, after the draining emotions of Saturday’s win at Stamford Bridge. Defensively the team looked shaky for the first 20 minutes or so, but improved significantly thereafter. In the middle Vermaelen and Per Mertesacker looked composed and mopped up the majority of Marseille’s most dangerous moments without undue worry. Vermaelen performed at a consistent level for the full game, and looks to be fully fit and ready to regain his place in the side.

Jenkinson had an outstanding game (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

On the left, Santos was heavily targeted and regularly found wanting. His over-willingness to bomb forward left him out of position too easily – on countless occasions, either Vermaelen or Alex Song were forced to plug the gaping holes he left behind him – and hs passing out of defence lacked care. He unnecessarily conceded dangerous possession on several occasions, or put teammates under pressure with poor passes. On the other side, Jenkinson regularly supported Walcott down the right, but was much more disciplined in tracking back. After some wobbly early games, he looks like a genuine prospect. I can’t remember Wojciech Szczęsny having to make a single meaningful save.

Song and Arteta worked diligently in front of the back four to provide a solid defensive screen, with the former repeatedly brushing off challenges in midfield, However this meant their contribution to supporting the attack was often limited. That burden fell on Ramsey, who worked hard to create opportunities for both himself and others before tiring in the second half. His overall performance was good without ever quite touching the heights he has reached in recent weeks. By the time he went off after 66 minutes, he looked like a player in need of a game off. Do not be surprised if he starts on the bench against West Brom.

Walcott had some dangerous moments but flitted in and out of the game while Gervinho, as previously mentioned, had one of those games where he worked hard but nothing quite came off for him. That left Park often isolated up front and lacking the understanding with his teammates to make a really telling contribution against an obdurate Marseille side. He needs more game time before he is ready to deputise for van Persie on a regular basis, but it would also be silly to write him off prematurely. He will improve.

A win at home to Dortmund in three weeks’ time will guarantee progress to the last 16, although Arsenal may also need to win at Olympiacos if they want to ensure they finish top of the group. There is still some work to be done, but given their recent form the team have every reason to be confident of achieving qualification.

Arsenal man of the match: Carl Jenkinson. Flawless in defence, an energetic source of width in attack.

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About Tim
Father of three. Bit of a geek. That's all, folks.

One Response to Stalemate as Arsenal edge closer to Champions League progression

  1. Pingback: No fireworks as Gunners blow away West Brom with ease « The armchair sports fan

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