By Patrick Grove
Arsenal Football Club stands atop their group in the UEFA Champions League after defeating Olympique d’Marseille in their first ever meeting at the Stade Velodrome. In many ways, the match was not much of a footballing spectacle and surely will not be used to promote the game or competition. But a win is a win and an away win in the Champions League Group Stage is so much more.
The few Gunners fans that I have read and heard complaining about the match were frustrated by the performance and certainly not the result. Having said that though, I need to break off on a bit of a tangent. One of my biggest pet peeves in life is people having double standards. Applying one set of rules for one group and changing those rules for another. If you listened to the commentary today (and really anytime in the recent past for Arsenal) you may know what I’m on about. Had Manchester United or Chelsea or Barcelona or Real Madrid won an ugly game like Arsenal did tonight, the pundits would be saying “It’s the type of win that champions come up with.” Being Arsenal though, we got the same old “uninspiring, lucky, and disappointing” comments. Now if that’s not a double standard (and one that seems constantly levied at AFC), then I’m not human.
Anyway back to the point. Following the win at home to Sunderland over the weekend that makes Arsenal Football club on a run of 5 wins out of 6 matches. Is this the team that was supposed to be in a crisis? Now, I’ll admit that it was uninspiring and lacked our usual sharpness, but both Sunday and Wednesday yielded good results. As one fan shouted out on the BBC feed, I’d take 1-0 wins for the rest of the season (granted I may die of a heart attack if that happens). And beyond the results, there were also some encouraging signs.
The first 25 minutes against Sunderland reminded me of what this team used to be able to do on a regular basis. We were rampant and really should have been up 3 or 4 goals before the 25 minute mark, a la St. James Park last season (and yes I remember the unfortunate way that game ended.) The team definitely wobbled after Larrson found the equalizer for the Black Cats, but I’ll eat my shoe if the Gunners weren’t the better team over 90 minutes on Sunday. If Arsenal were even remotely better at free kicks (aside from RVP’s obviously) we would have won that game by a rugby score.
Against, Marseille we repeated our defensive performance from Dortmund and looked sound throughout. We defended as a team, and although the defense did not have much to cope with in the south of France, that was as much down to being well organized as it was to Marseille’s lack of cohesion. If Mertesacker, Koscielny, and Vermaelean (when he returns) can stay healthy, our central defenders look relatively solid at the moment.
In the final 15-20 minutes of the Marseille match, we also looked more potent creatively. We were not at the level we reached early on in the Sunderland match, but if either team was going to come away with 3 points in Marseille, it was going to be the team from north London. We fought hard, were organized, patient, and efficient and at the end of the game, (the time when most people accuse this team of wilting), the lads stood up and took the 3 points.
I would like to point out a few players for special praise and a few for mediocrity from the last two games. We’ll start with the disappointing performances. Against Sunderland a few players stood out for me in their ineptitude. As much as I have praised some of Alex Song’s contributions this term, his passing was beyond woeful on Sunday. If he can remember that he is a defensive midfielder and really gets paid to protect the back four, then he has a long and bright future. If he continues to insist on getting forward too often and trying to be the creative midfielder at times (which he is clearly not), he will struggle as he did in this game. Similarly, another midfielder I had some scorn for was Arteta. I will be easier on the man as he has played almost every game since his arrival and could probably use a rest. None the less, both going forward and helping back he looked below his usual standard on Sunday.
Against Marseille, the disappointments were pretty simple to see. Theo Walcott has done very little to convince me or for that matter many people why he merits a spot in the team. People are clamouring for him to be given a chance playing through the middle but would he really get in ahead of RVP? And with our defensive struggles, does it really make sense to play fewer midfielders and an extra attacker? Sorry, but for me he needs a sit down and reminder that he has improved but there is still work to be done. Another relative disappointment was Arshavin. I have to say that in his last few outings, he has looked more dangerous, but very little of that was seen in France. Every time he touches the ball I am expecting some sort of magic and right now it seems those moments are few and far between (even if he had one against Sunderland).
For praise, against Sunderland, one man really saved our skin and we all know who he is. One goal with his chocolate leg and another with his magic wand gave us a much-needed victory at home. He worked tirelessly and was dangerous every time he touched the ball. Had his turn and chip gone in; he may have had a contender for goal of the season. My other top performer was Tomas Rosicky. I’ve always liked him as a player and although he has struggled, he looked sharp against the Black Cats. He seems well suited to play in the creative midfielders role in the center with a wonderful chip through to Gervinho for the first goal and some good link up play throughout. Another great aspect of his game is that he works as hard as any midfielder to help back and close down the opposition.
Against Marseille, there were a few players that looked somewhat bright among the dullness of that game. Again, I think Rosicky proved his worth with some good, dangerous balls played into our forwards. Per and Laurent had good games at the back. Andre Santos looked dangerous going forward (and just as dangerous defending, my Lord was he close to being sent off). Gervinho and Ramsey were both strong coming on as substitutes.
All in all, it’s been a pleasant week to be an Arsenal fan. In light of all that’s happened this season, it’s hard to ignore winning 5 out of 6 in all competitions and topping your group in the Champions League. Stoke are headed to London on Sunday and they are not a team to be taken lightly. If the lads can find another victory this weekend with the Potters in town, the future will look very bright indeed.
Arsenal Til I Die