Arsenal found solidity at the back in the shape of their injury-free Belgian captain
On a night of no goals and few chances in north London, the solid performance of Thomas Vermaelen represented the best news for Arsenal, particularly since he was called upon to take responsibility for marshalling a defence completed by Carl Jenkinson, Per Mertesacker and André Santos, hardly a line-up to guarantee a night free from alarms and diversions.
Of all the many players whose absences and departures coincided with the team's steady decline over the past two seasons, none has been more sorely missed than the Belgian, who arrived in the summer of 2009 and immediately looked just the man around whom to rebuild a defence that had begun to show signs of falling below acceptable standards.
Then, unhappily for Arsène Wenger, he started to suffer problems with an achilles tendon, restricting him to five appearances in his second season. He was present and correct at the start of this campaign, only for a recurrence to send him back to the sidelines after a handful of appearances. His return against Bolton in the Carling Cup last week and as a late substitute in the tumultuous victory against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge on Saturday was more than welcome and coincided with his acceptance of a new contract that will keep him at the club until 2015.
Last night he was paired with Per Mertesacker, the man bought from Werder Bremen during the last transfer window in response to the popular demand for a tall centre-back. The German is 6ft 4in while Vermaelen stands a mere 6ft, which has never seemed a handicap to a man whose ability to head the ball puts him in a class with other great centre-backs of relatively restricted stature, such as Daniel Passarella, the captain of Argentina's 1978 world champions, and Paolo Montero of Uruguay.
Sure enough, a Vermaelen header provided one of Arsenal's two decent chances on the night. When Mikel Arteta angled in a free-kick in the first minute of the second half, Mertesacker met the ball with a back-header into the six-yard box, where his partner rose to win a challenge with the excellent Steve Mandanda and glanced his effort inches over. It was as close as Arsenal came to penetrating the Phoenicians' defence until, with 12 minutes left, Robin van Persie raced clear before sending a chip tamely into the gloves of a relieved Mandanda. For Wenger, barring further accidents, the dilemma will be over which of his players to select alongside Vermaelen on a regular basis. While Mertesacker might possess the more obviously complementary characteristics, Laurent Koscielny is the more polished footballer and seemed on the way to creating a useful partnership with the Belgian before the onset of Vermaelen's injury problems.
Marseille tore into the match with the sort of aggressive intent notably lacking from their performance in defeat against the same opponents in the Stade Vélodrome a fortnight ago, promising a stringent test of Vermaelen's match fitness and of Wenger's defence as a whole. Wearing the captain's armband while Van Persie started the evening on the substitutes' bench, Vermaelen did his best to radiate his usual sense of calmness and security in the face of regular assaults mounted by Jordan and André Ayew, Loïc Remy, Mathieu Valbuena and the substitute Morgan Amalfitano on the right wing.
Any wingers facing Arsenal this season and seeing the names of Jenkinson and Santos on the team sheet will fancy their chances of getting something from the contest, thanks to the inexperience of the tall young Anglo-Finn at right-back and the wanderlust of the solidly built Brazilian on the opposite flank. Santos, in particular, will always provide entertainment as he launches himself into injudicious challenges, leaving acres of space to be attacked by opponents when he ventures upfield and seeming to run short of puff when urgently required to regain his defensive station.
As they did against Chelsea at the weekend, however, his attacking incursions tended to overshadow his defensive limitations. "I'm happy when he has the ball," Wenger said afterwards, "and I feel personally that he's much better defensively that many people think. He's an intelligent boy and he's getting better all the time."
The positive approach displayed by Didier Deschamps' team, and their renewed counterattacks in the closing minutes as Arsenal pressed forward in search of a decisive strike, certainly presented the members of the home side's reshuffled back four with a worthwhile test. They may have been surprised in recent days to hear their manager insisting that defence is no longer a priority of the English game, but if defences were largely on top last night, that did not make the match less enjoyable, although it would have been hard to mistake it for a bout between heavyweight contenders.