Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Arsenal grab late winner to steal a march in Group F

Aaron Ramsey’s great but late winner in the 92nd minute was a fine if fortunate strike that turned a middling Arsenal performance into a satisfying one, at least in terms of the result. The atmosphere at the Stade Vélodrome was a little strange, given that half the ground was essentially a building site. This was compounded by the prominent claret and blue banner hanging behind the goal that read ‘Come on you Irons’ – frustrated Hammers fans in search of vicarious European football?

The Gunners, for once, were superior in defence to attack, and Arsenal showed better defensive discipline across the back four, holding a good line and pushing up to squeeze the space. In particular, the central pairing of Mertesacker and Koscielny looks to be improving with every game, and the same can be said of Carl Jenkinson’s performances. His loss to a knee strain in the 59th minute was unfortunate and necessitated the introduction of Djourou, who fortunately did a good job to see out the game – and was unlucky to get a booking for a perfectly fair tackle. The weak link was perhaps Santos on the left, who took a few unnecessary risks and seemed to have neither the fitness nor the inclination to track back and close down as the game wore on. Still, the Brazilian showed some good skill and was average rather than poor – in Sun terms, an unremarkable 5.

The first-half was fast-paced and frenetic, with both teams playing relatively open attacking football. Wenger opted to start with both Arshavin and Rosicky, and Walcott and Arteta retained their places while Gervinho and Ramsey were left on the bench. This fairly offensive line-up perhaps demonstrated Arsene’s desire to take three points off the French side, a team for which – understandably – he seems to hold some residual resentment. Marseille did put Arsenal under pressure at various points however, their initial high-energy pressing giving our midfield in particular a hard time and causing individual errors. Arsenal didn’t help themselves either though, as various players were guilty of putting team-mates unnecessarily in trouble. Clearly the understanding between players isn't there yet, at least not on a consistent basis, which led to some misplaced passes and balls needlessly running out of play.

Still, a nervy start was perhaps to be expected, and they settled as the half went on, picking up and retaining possession for long spells. Arteta was vocal and a calming influence throughout, helping to break up play and alternating with Song as the defensive midfield pivot. This raises the question as to whether Arsenal in fact need a nominal deep-lying defensive midfielder in the conventional sense. Song does not seem disciplined enough to play that role, and while Arteta could fill it, this would rob the team of his creative influence. The generally good understanding between the two, which is visibly improving, should serve us well. Arteta habitually plays deeper anyway – certainly more so than Cesc did, for example – and though there will be sterner tests ahead than Marseille, this flexible-looking system perhaps holds promise.

Walcott put in an improved performance over the weekend, but would waste a good chance later in the game with a tame shot. Rosicky was full of endeavour, perhaps stung by criticism over his apparent nonchalance after Larsson’s free kick on Sunday. Arshavin, on the other hand, was largely anonymous, and disappointing given his positive substitute’s display against Sunderland. Jenkinson was impetuous in his desire to get forward, running on and looking to put balls into the box. He certainly gave Andre Ayew lots to think about, who looked nonplussed by this young buck disappearing up the pitch at every opportunity. In the young right-back, who is yet to turn twenty, we do at least seem to have a player capable of delivering decent crosses – arguably his delivery is of better quality than Bacary Sagna’s.

Jenkinson’s only prominent error was a case for handball, which was waved away by the referee despite loud appeals from the Marseille forwards. It would have been harsh and indeed Diawara’s handball at the other end was a much better claim for an Arsenal penalty.

The second half seemed to demonstrate that Marseille were unwilling to live with Arsenal for a second 45 minutes and they visibly slowed the tempo. Arsenal continued to be tidy in possession, playing good approach football but lacking a cutting edge. The fact that they were unable to capitalise on a lacklustre display from the home team became increasingly frustrating; the introduction of Gervinho and Ramsey helped without managing to result in many clear-cut chances.

Until the dying seconds of the match, that is. A good ball from Djourou, advancing on the right flank, was miscontrolled by Gervinho but ran on to Ramsey, who had made an intelligent run to the far post. With time and space, he finished crisply past Steve Mandanda with a coolness that Theo Walcott demonstrably lacked earlier in the game. Lucky, yes, but also deserved, on balance. As the rain started, Ramsey ran the length of the field to the huddled Gooners in the corner of the stadium, where the first player to congratulate him was a jubilant Szczesny, who’d run from his goalmouth to the touchline. The team spirit seems to be returning to the side, and confidence too. This win will only help that; significantly it leaves us top of Group F and adds, perhaps, to the momentum that seems to be slowly but surely building.

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