Spirit remains but Gunners fire blanks
Arsenal have been confronting their 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 have 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," said Arsene Wenger of his decision to bench the Dutchman for all but the last 30 minutes. "We are playing 50 games in a year and he cannot play 50 games."
So, can the 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 Park Chu-young, after last week's excellent strike in the Carling Cup, given a start. The Korean is not expected to replicate the leadership that Van Persie has displayed, both by example of excellence and a hitherto unrecognised statesmanship. What Arsenal want from Park is to be the player they lost when Eduardo's leg was broken at St Andrew's in 2008. A finisher to complement the all-round qualities of Van Persie would do just nicely.
An hour in, 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 defence. "At the moment, he lacks the pace of the game," suggested Wenger. "He has not played enough."
Not even Van Persie at his peak could alter the unerringly blank destiny of this match. A single burst through the OM offside trap was followed by a chipped improvisation that failed to break the deadlock.
Weekend hero Theo Walcott reverted to frustrating type after a tenth minute shot had 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 best attack came in the very first minute for Andre Ayew shows what type of game this was.
Olympique Marseille are another team undergoing a positive shift in fortunes and an adventurous start swiftly reverted to defending in numbers, with counter-attacking the order of their day. The fireworks of the Bridge were not to be repeated. Wenger suggested his own 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 was also a match in which horrid defending played an equal part in the thrills. As John Terry's bad week got yet worse, two of Chelsea's three goals had 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 the Emirates' dining halls, and faced a test in the languid skills of Ayew. He came through it, just about.
Wenger has a taste for full-backs who can overlap, which the sometime Finn can certainly do, but his understanding of the organisation of an offside trap is not exactly in the traditions of Steve Bould and Tony Adams. The same goes for Andre Santos on the other side. 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," said Wenger. "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," mounted their manager's case for the defence 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 honours 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 may have been given up, but at least 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 backline, itself the weakness that has denied Wenger the glory he feels his team's efforts have deserved in the last six years.
The mix is not yet right. The two elements of attack and defence 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, where a second-placed finish resulted in the knock-out nemesis of Barcelona hovering into view. As it stands, there is still a possibility of history repeating itself for a second time. That is for a future that may not be realised. 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". They showed both of those, while Ayew and Valbuena both looked dangerous. A win would have been something of a smash n' grab, though a taste of the medicine OM received from Arsenal two weeks ago.
BALLON BORE? Arsene Wenger seemed somewhat embarrassed in pre-match when he was reminded that he has been nominated for "Coach of the Year". He was dismissive post-match 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," said a rather irked Wenger.