Spirits remain but Gunners fire blanks
LONDON -- Arsenal has been confronting its problems in public. Previously silent Stan Kroenke's step into the limelight has not exactly been received with unanimous critical acclaim, but on the field, Arsene Wenger's team has staged a revival act after a horror-show early season. Saturday at Stamford Bridge saw a famous victory celebrated in raptures, as team and fans joined together in hailing the felling of a long-troublesome ogre.
Robin Van Persie had simply destroyed Chelsea, but his fragility matches his value to his team. His manager has pledged to protect his finest asset. "He was tired; it was fatigue," Wenger said of his decision to bench the Dutchman for all but the last 30 minutes in Tuesday's Champions League encounter with Marseille. "We are playing 50 games in a year, and he cannot play 50 games."
So, can the Arsenal revival continue without Van Persie in the ranks? It is a question that still hangs after this goalless, and often listless, draw.
Here was a dress-rehearsal run, with the flying Dutchman benched and Korean striker Park Chu-Young, after last week's excellent strikes, given a start. The Korean is not expected to replicate the leadership Van Persie has displayed, both by example of excellence and a hitherto unrecognized statesmanship. What Arsenal wants from Park is to be the player it lost when Eduardo's leg was broken at St. Andrews in 2008. A finisher to complement the all-around qualities of Van Persie would do nicely.
An hour in Tuesday, and Park departed, his claim for a regular place unlikely to be met for the foreseeable future. Van Persie's arrival was little surprise. Park had faded from view, his moment of truth denied by a heavy touch after Gervinho and Aaron Ramsey had carved him a first-half chance. It was a disappointment greeted with groans. An enterprising start was too soon lost in the heavy traffic of the Marseille defense. "At the moment, he lacks the pace of the game," Wenger said. "He has not played enough."
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Not even Van Persie at his peak could alter the unerringly blank destiny of this match. A single burst through the Marseille offside trap was followed by a chipped improvisation that failed to break the deadlock.
Weekend hero Theo Walcott reverted to frustrating form after a 10th-minute shot fizzed past Marseille keeper Steve Mandanda, a moment that on reflection of the whole 90 minutes was possibly the best chance of the game for Arsenal. That Marseille's very best attack came in the very first minute through Andre Ayew shows what type of game is to be described here.
Olympique Marseille is another team undergoing a positive shift in fortunes, and an adventurous start at the Emirates swiftly reverted to defending in numbers, with counter-attacking the order of its day. The fireworks of the Bridge were not to be repeated. Wenger suggested his team's flatness came "emotionally more than physically" and that it was "difficult to be on a high three days later."
Victory at Chelsea was a triumph for Arsenal's attacking principles, but it also was a match in which horrid defending played an equal part in the thrills. As John Terry's bad week got worse, two of Chelsea's three goals resulted from mistakes by Andre Santos and Per Mertesacker, recent arrivals suffering early problems. Carl Jenkinson, meanwhile, is as raw as the sushi on offer in Emirates' dining halls and faced a test in the languid skills of Ayew. He came through it, just about.
Wenger has a taste for fullbacks who can overlap, which the sometime Finn can certainly do, but his understanding of the organization of an offside trap is not exactly in the traditions of Steve Bould and Tony Adams. The same goes for Santos. Building an almost entirely new back four was always going to be difficult, but their manager was encouraged by the results here. "It's positive that we did not concede a goal," Wenger said. "And in the third period of the pitch, we know we can do better.
"It's not all perfect, but Mertesacker was solid, Jenkinson was fine but lacks experience in certain situations, and I am happy when Santos has the ball," the manager said, mounting a case for the defense before he described Santos as "a very intelligent boy."
The return of Thomas Vermaelen added defensive leadership, experience that his three colleagues cannot yet offer. Like Van Persie, the Belgian must be wrapped in cotton wool if honors and a 15th straight Champions League place are to be grasped, such have been his own problems with physiology.
Good chances for Morgan Amalfitano and Loic Remy might have been given up, but at least for Arsenal, there was an air of defensive calm, where once there was panic and farce. The attack has been restored to former glories. It is now time to concentrate on the back line, itself the weakness that has denied Wenger the glory he feels his team's efforts have deserved in the past six years.
The mix is not yet right. The two elements of attack and defense are yet to work properly in tandem, but this stalemate should not halt any sense of revival. A win would have meant avoiding what happpened last year, when a second-placed finish resulted in the knockout nemesis of Barcelona coming into view. As it stands, there still is a possibility of history repeating itself for a third time. In a different but no less valid fashion than Saturday's celebrations, Arsenal looked like a team again.
ARSENAL VERDICT: The highs of Saturday were not to be repeated. Attacks broke down rather too often. But at least there was a solidity to Arsenal that looked lost a few weeks ago. There is the positive to derive from this rather dull draw.
MARSEILLE VERDICT: Didier Deschamps spoke of "fighting spirit" but admitted his team required "caution at the back." It showed both of those, while Ayew and Valbuena looked dangerous. A win would have been something of a smash 'n' grab, although a taste of the medicine Marseille received from Arsenal two weeks ago.
BALLON BORE? Arsene Wenger seemed somewhat embarrassed before the match when he was reminded that he has been nominated for coach of the year. He was dismissive in the postmatch news conference when asked why he thought Van Persie was not in European football's top 50. "I don't make the list; I don't know," a rather irked Wenger said.