Arsenal made it four Champions League wins from five games with victory at home to Marseille on Tuesday evening. Adam Bate was there to see a comfortable win built on solid foundations that hinted at a growing belief that the Gunners can have rather loftier ambitions
By Adam Bate at Emirates Stadium. Last Updated: 26/11/13 11:36pm
There is a way to go before Arsenal can make it 14 visits to the last 16 stage but the signs are good
Even before Arsenal's comfortable 2-0 win over Marseille at Emirates Stadium, visiting boss Elie Baup was an admirer of the Gunners. "They are the best side in our group and are going to qualify," he told reporters. "When you get to the last 16 and the quarter-finals, the teams are all very close together. However, this season Arsenal have an undeniable attacking quality."
Nothing the experienced French coach saw on Tuesday evening is likely to have changed his opinion. A glance at the team-sheet prior to kick-off indicated that - with hopes of progression long since gone - French resistance might be minimal as Baup elected to leave star players, such as Mathieu Valbuena and Florian Thauvin, on the bench. Jack Wilshere's delicious goal, cutting in from the right wing after just 30 seconds, confirmed the suspicions.
As it happened, the second goal took rather longer than both Arsene Wenger and the home crowd would have liked. Aaron Ramsey was denied from close range by the feet of the visiting goalkeeper Steve Mandanda, but then looked to have made amends soon after when he bought a debatable penalty with a clever turn on the edge of the box. However, Mesut Ozil's spot-kick was a disappointment, a checked run-up failing to fool Mandanda.
It was left to Wilshere himself to double the lead and make sure of the points after the break, converting from an Ozil square pass after more good work from Ramsey on the right. It was fully deserved and Baup, it seems, is part of a growing fan club. Jurgen Klopp, coach of fellow Group F rivals Borussia Dortmund, recently praised Wenger's side for their youthful exuberance allied to a rare technical proficiency - and here it was for all to see. "They could go to a final and win it," said Klopp. Before adding the significant caveat: "As long as they do not play against Bayern Munich."
Of course, that is exactly what they did last season - eliminated on away goals after a 3-3 draw over two legs. It was an outcome rather put into context by the subsequent results that saw Bayern put 11 goals past the current champions of Italy and Spain without reply. There are times when elimination can still offer encouragement.
Jack Wilshere was the star of the show with two goals to help Arsenal beat Marseille
The problem for Arsenal supporters is that it is becoming difficult to be persuaded of the vagaries of cup competition - the belief that a fair wind might carry any team all the way - when all evidence points to an obvious limit to their ambitions. Arsenal have successfully negotiated the opening group stages in each of the last 13 seasons. Only nine-time winners Real Madrid can better that record. It is taking the next step that has proven the tricky part.
But what Baup and Klopp might have picked up on is a growing resilience to this particular incarnation of Wenger's team. The attractive football remains, supplemented by the undisguised brilliance of Ozil that has lifted those forward-thinking players around him. And yet, just as impressive has been the solid base upon which the familiar passing game is now being constructed.
It was there at the weekend against Southampton as the Gunners kept their fifth clean sheet of the season on their own patch. "It could have been a very difficult game if we had conceded the first goal," acknowledged Wenger in his programme notes for Tuesday's game. "That is where maybe we have improved in our defensive stability when the game is difficult."
Club captain Thomas Vermaelen echoed those sentiments in his own address to the club's supporters. "It might not have been the most beautiful win by us, but it is certainly important," he said of the weekend victory. "In fact, sometimes I think it can be even more important to get wins like that throughout the season; when you are not at your best but you do enough to get the job done."
The fact that the skipper cannot get into this team says much for the partnership Laurent Koscielny and Per Mertesacker have forged in the heart of the defence. But for Andre Ayew's late consolation in the first meeting between these sides, Arsenal would have four clean sheets from five Champions League games and the understanding between the pair has been a feature of that improved solidity. With Mathieu Flamini in front of them, there is a maturity to this team.
Mesut Ozil's influence in midfield for Arsenal has been incredible since his summer transfer window arrival
Only Bayern and Paris Saint Germain have conceded fewer goals in this season's competition and although there is work still to do, Wenger cut a relaxed figure in the post-match press conference. "We were never really under any threat," said Wenger. "We felt so much in control that we played just thinking that it would come. We are playing with confidence. We have a feeling that defensively we mastered the situation well."
Mathieu Flamini: Mature influence
The presence of his defensive triangle is having positive implication elsewhere in the team. Flamini's responsible attitude and visible communication skills - his gesticulations almost self-consciously scream 'leader' - have allowed the Arsenal full-backs to advance with more confidence. The average positions of Nacho Monreal and Bacary Sagna against Marseille were higher up the field than the French midfielder. They are providing the width now.
And the whirlwind of midfielders is giving Arsenal control. A narrow four of Ramsey, Ozil, Wilshere and Tomas Rosicky interchanged beautifully against Marseille as Wenger's team have made light of their lack of natural width in the attacking midfield zones. Getting players close to Olivier Giroud has been key, with the growing understanding between Ramsey and Ozil a particular joy - the Welshman attempting no fewer than three dinked through-balls on Tuesday night.
Wilshere too has responded, with Wenger suggesting his goals were inspired by a desire to replicate Ramsey's efforts. A more likely reason is that his role is not that of a traditional winger. "If I blocked him on the flank then I would understand he could not play there," added Wenger. "But he is quite free to move from there and he does that in an intelligent way. Sometimes he can find freedom playing in positions where usually he would be marked if he played more central."
It is an unfinished symphony at present and in a difficult group there is a way to go before Arsenal can make it 14 consecutive visits to the last 16 stage of the competition. Defeat in Naples could yet mean joining Tottenham Hotspur in the Europa League, a state of affairs that Wenger called "incredible" after the game. But if Matchday Six can be safely negotiated, then there is renewed hope that this Arsenal team can succeed where recent ones have failed and reach the quarter-finals. As the vanquished Baup points out, when you get to that stage, anything is possible.
UEFA Champions League
Tue 26th Nov - Group G
Zenit1 - 1A Madrid
FC Porto1 - 1Austria Vienna
Tue 26th Nov - Group E
Basel1 - 0Chelsea
S Bucuresti0 - 0Schalke
Tue 26th Nov - Group F
B Dortmund3 - 1Napoli
Arsenal2 - 0Marseille
Tue 26th Nov - Group H
Celtic0 - 3AC Milan
Ajax2 - 1Barcelona
UEFA Champions League Group A
UEFA Champions League Group B
UEFA Champions League Group C
|3||Zenit St. Petersburg||3||4|
UEFA Champions League Group D
UEFA Champions League Group E
UEFA Champions League Group F
|1||Paris St Germain||3||7|
UEFA Champions League Group G
UEFA Champions League Group H
Arsenal v Marseille
Per Mertesacker is happy to have opened talks with Arsenal over a new contract with the Premier League club.
Steve Mandanda says the gulf in class between Marseille and their UEFA Champions League rivals has been hard to swallow.
Arsene Wenger says it was a comfortable 2-0 win over Marseille and is happy with Jack Wilshere's improving form.