Against an Olympique Marseille team yet to win in the UEFA Champions League this year and without some of their better players, an Arsenal victory wasn't surprising.
Not in the slightest.
The manner in which it happened—with midfielder Jack Wilshere deployed on the wing, scoring inside the opening minute and star man Mesut Ozil actually making a mistake—was a little more surprising, sure, but the fact remains that few walked away from the Emirates stunned at what they'd seen.
Arsenal were good without being brilliant, and got the result they required.
Marseille, as The Mirror's Andy Dawson said, got to go on an aeroplane.
That's not meant to be a blight on the Gunners at all; they welcomed the French club to London knowing that they needed to win, and did. Regardless of how interested their opponents might have looked and how lacklustre they were in the opening 45 minutes, these are the type of games that good teams cannot afford to lose, and that will certainly have pleased Arsene Wenger.
But make no mistake, at the same time, this was still a sub-standard performance from Arsenal. And not just because of the lack of pressure their opponents applied.
Let's break down the film of this game and pick out where the Gunners were dominant, and where they desperately need to improve ahead of their next big match.
Jack Wilshere the Beneficiary from Arsenal's Midfield Dominance
Marseille certainly came to the Emirates all too aware of the threat that Arsenal posed in midfield, having seen it firsthand from when they met earlier in the year.
They'd been broken open through the middle that night and, having seen the Gunners put several other teams to the sword in exactly the same way since then, came into this one determined to snuff out the threat in the middle of the field. They played tight on both Mesut Ozil and Olivier Giroud whenever they came centrally by always keeping at least three defenders very close together in the middle of the park.
Given how high both the left and right backs for Arsenal were likely to push, Marseille had their wingers drop back and almost play as wide defenders from time to time.
That allowed them to push at least one fullback infield as a third defender.
In many ways, it was a great tactical move to cover the middle of the field, but what it didn't do was account for individual runners coming in from wide areas.
Arsenal have been devastating crossing the ball in from wide areas this season, and it was only natural for Marseille to expect that whenever they got in attacking positions, the Gunners would play six or seven passes to create a chance. That's been the way they've attacked all season—pass it lots to try and work an opening—and while it hasn't always been the most effective method (in that it's overcomplicated their attacks when they needed to play more direct) that's the style they employ.
Marseille were right to expect that from the opening whistle, and it clearly shaped their thinking when Jack Wilshere burst down the right wing after 20 seconds.
The French club were looking for the central ball—in this case to Ozil.
Nicolas N'Koulou and Lucas Mendes (the central defenders for the evening) track back to cover Wilshere here, but N'Koulou doesn't completely commit to the Englishman. He stays centrally when in fact, given the fact that he was further down field, he might have been better going to the winger and allowing Mendes to cover the middle—forming a crossing pattern.
That's a minor detail, but the key is their run back to the goal. All three defenders—once we include Kassim Abdallah—are look to come back centrally rather than press out on Wilshere.
As mentioned, this makes sense, given how much the Gunners love to cut from wide areas to the middle.
However, fast-forward it a couple of frames and you'll note how isolated Mendes is now defending Wilshere. Marseille assume that the central pass is coming, so they all hang back and try to pick up the arriving runners in Ozil (on the penalty spot) as well as any pass to the top of the box.
Marseille are so busy looking to shut down the outlet pass that they forget to help Mendes shut down the runner. Wilshere cuts in, and nets a wonderful goal.
Credit goes to the finish, but it was made easy by the fact that Marseille hung off him. Which, in turn, was made easy by the Gunners' previous midfield dominance.
The same happened for the second goal, albeit in different circumstances.
With the French club looking to keep three defenders centrally at all times, Olivier Giroud wasn't quite getting the possession and touches that he likes. So when Ozil started to press down the right flank, instead of pushing into the middle for a cross or through-ball (like expected), he comes back to the ball—giving Arsenal a slew of attackers within close proximity of each other.
As the play develops, this leaves Giroud in a wide area and Marseille's central defenders without anyone to directly mark. In fact, the French international striker gets himself into a one-on-one with Morel on the right flank—such is his width and involvement from out wide.
When the ball gets played back to Ramsey, who in turns feeds a wonderful pass to Ozil through the line, Marseille's defense seems sloppy. Yet what's really happening is that the three defenders are again so busy trying to keep their line—as they've no doubt been instructed to stop the Gunners working through the middle of them—that they don't mark the wider man.
Giroud's wide runs draws Morel out which creates space between him and Mendes. That allows Ozil to get through, Marseille's defense reacts slowly and Wilshere (who's timed his run perfectly to get between Abdallah and Florian Thauvin seemingly unnoticed) nets the simplest of finishes.
The defense seems sloppy, but it's a wonderful use of width from Giroud to create space in behind and exploit the preconceptions that Marseille had about Arsenal.
What this means for teams in the future is hard to say exactly, but there's an important lesson to be learned from this game about expectations of how a team will attack. The French club expected Arsenal to try and break them open through the middle—like they have done to many teams this year—but they overcommitted to this strategy, neglecting other areas of defense.
Clubs that come up against Arsenal in the future have to assume that Arsenal will attack like normal (frequent passing in the middle) but they cannot assume this at the expense of all other attacking outlets.
That was the key in the two goals that Marseille conceded on the night.
Credit to the Gunners for their creativity and attacking diversity.
Still Room for Improvement in the Attacking Third
Having said all of that, it's important to note that this was by no means a perfect attacking performance from Arsenal—despite their dominance moving forward.
Especially in the attacking third, Arsenal still lacked that decisive pass needed to break open their opponents. They too often tried to play a miracle ball—which is natural coming from a side playing with confidence—and that forced them into several sloppy turnovers as they were getting into good positions.
Look at these two examples from later on in the match.
Instead of playing the simple ball to Santi Cazorla in the middle of the field—who was in a mountain of space it might also be noted—Ramsey tries to play a difficult through-ball to Theo Walcott. It was easily intercepted for a simple turnover.
Instead of playing it wide to Nacho Monreal (or even switching it across field where there was plenty of space), the miracle pass through the defense is attempted.
Once more, the trio of Marseille defenders win the ball back, though in this instance, it's adjudged to be a handball and Arsenal survive, but the point remains the same. The North Londoners are to play with confidence, especially when they're in front, but they must realize that they're not going to score miracle goals and play superb passes all the time. Sometimes, they simply need to take the simple pass and wait for a better option to present itself (be that as an attacking chance or a defensive mistake).
Arsenal—for the most part—have been good at not letting the confidence and ability to break open a defense seemingly at will get to their head, but they dropped the ball a little this week. Too often they tried to play a miracle pass and score the miracle goal, and it resulted in turnovers.
More composure was required inside the attacking third.
It's also worth noting here that Arsenal's willingness to play the miracle pass often resulted in them running similar lines in attack. Looking above, both Giroud and Walcott run a similar line in attack which makes it easier for Marseille to read where the pass is going.
Looking below at the chance that Ramsey creates for Ozil, both Giroud and Wilshere and Ozil have the potential to run behind the defense and through on goal.
In this instance, Ramsey is able to play an incredible pass over the top of a slew of Marseille defenders and release Ozil. In most cases, though, it won't be that easy; if a similar situation presents itself again, it's more than likely that a defense will indeed force a turnover.
Arsenal need to ensure that in the attacking third they aren't running the same lines as each other and aren't trying to play the highlight-making pass all the time.
More often than not, a brilliant pass requires plenty of "boring" passes before it.
That's been something Arsenal have done well this season, but it's something that they must continue to remember—especially when they are playing from in front.
Some food for thought for Arsene Wenger's men.
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