Arsenal 2 – 0 Olympique de Marseille
1 – 0 Wilshere (1)
2 – 0 Wilshere (65)
The performance didn’t matter, the result did. Three points was required on an inconclusive evening for this season’s Champions League Group of Death. As it happened, the performance was good; tidy, professional and of such authority that the result was rarely in doubt. Yes, more goals would have been nice, They were not a necessity because if as expected Dortmund win in France in a fortnight, Marseilles contribution to this season’s competition is irrelevant. It all rests on Arsenal not losing by three goals in Naples in a fortnight’s time.
Jack Wilshere grabbed the headlines with a brace of well-taken goals crowning an excellent outing but there were several candidates for Man of the Match, not least Nacho Monreal who gave a commanding performance at left back. The Spaniard dropped seamlessly into the side, offering reassurance to his manager that had has nothing to worry about ill-fortune striking that side of the defence. Context is all and the French side were as poor as any that has been seen in the competition over the years, surprisingly so given they sit fourth in Ligue Un. Thankfully, Arsenal do not have to rely on them to get a result to qualify; their final standing in the group will be as a result of their own efforts.
Afterwards, Arsène struggled to find reasons to dampen enthusiasm – perhaps temper expectations is a better phrase – left instead to ponder if it would have been nice to score a few more. It would apparently so it was left to other as rows simmered with Andy Townsend‘s exhortation of Marseilles efforts waiting to be passed off as him wanting the viewer to be entertained rather than being acknowledged as the latest addition to ITVs catalogue of woeful behaviour toward the club. Mathieu Flamini meanwhile is not being allowed to play with scissors any more as the media sought to build up a mutiny over shirt sleeves. It is all window dressing, a sideshow to distract from a routine European win.
There is a rigidity in thought about the tactics employed as the manager sought to explain. Just because Jack Wilshere is notionally on the right of midfield does not make him glued to the touchline. Indeed, “drifting inside” paid dividends inside the first minute as the England international found ample space to gallop toward the Marseille penalty area, look up to see no-one waiting for the cross so took the ball inside and neatly curled it into the net. Twenty-nine seconds on the clock and the fastest goal by an Englishman in the history of the Champions League. Whether that encompasses the Champions Cup, I know not. As good as the finish was, it contained a hint of what was to come from the visitors with Mandanda beaten too easily and the rest of the defence seemingly unaware that Wilshere was left-footed; there can be no plausible explanation beyond that for the space they afforded him and the manner he was shepherded into the middle. Such generosity from a team which can ill-afford it.
There was much to admire in the second as well. Arsenal ceded possession a couple of times before finally making the telling pass to Mesut Özil whose curled pass into the middle of the area was gleefully slotted home. Poor marking again but Wilshere concentrated and made sure that he stayed onside in a position where all to often wide players fall foul of the linesman’s flag. For the German it was redemption of sorts having taken one of the worst penalties from an Arsenal player. Not quite in the league of Pires and Henry but not far off it. Typically Arsenal you might think, to sign the only German international who makes England look good at spot kicks.
Redemption might have come sooner had the referee had the courage of Mark Clattenburg at the weekend, missing his second penalty incident of the night. Arsenal could – should – have been comfortable in victory by then. Rosicky was priming with energetic movement as Özil and Wilshere roamed freely. Ramsey ought to have done better from close range as Wilshere teed him up for the sort of chance that he gobbled up earlier in the season. With all the talk beforehand, it was no surprise his mojo went missing; the football gods are like that.
Other chances came and went, before and after Wilshere had completed the win. That they were not scored is not a cause for concern, Arsenal were barely out of second gear whilst Marseilles rejigged side offered little. When they did, Wojciech Szczesny was alert and sharp in his reactions, in particular from Thauvin as the second half wore on. That the chances for the visitors were so few and far between highlights the cohesive performance between the back four and midfield. Had his sleeves not been so ragged, Flamini would surely have rolled them up as readily as he did metaphorically with his pressing and snapping at the visitors when they ventured into mildly threatening positions. If that barrier were by-passed, Per Mertesacker provided as big an obstacle as you might expectt. BFG indeed.
Twelve points, so the mantra goes, is enough to qualify in previous years. It might well be this time also but that relies on the efforts of others, something Arsenal have steadfastly avoided thus far. It highlights how costly the moment of naïvety in the home match against Dortmund might be. Yet the performances aside from that game suggest Arsenal are more than capable of achieving the result they need in Naples. Explosive atmosphere or not, you sense not much is knocking the side out its stride at present. The international break, for once, seems to have done them no harm at all.