Duo reply to recent criticism with goals in tight Middlesbrough win at the Riverside
Middlesbrough 1 Arsenal 2
Arsène Wenger unveiled a new formation and his players remembered how to win away as Middlesbrough were left wondering what might have been had Steve Agnew replaced Aitor Karanka a little sooner.
Admittedly Agnew has taken only two points from five games in charge and Boro’s aim of avoiding relegation looks even less feasible than the prospect of Arsenal finishing in the top four but their performances have improved.
So much so that not only were Wenger’s sometimes shaky side frequently made to sweat but the second half was sufficiently exciting for spectators to justify the decision to miss Broadchurch’s eagerly awaited denouement.
With Hull and Swansea losing on Saturday, Middlesbrough had been teased by renewed hope. Six points behind Marco Silva’s 17th-placed side and two adrift of Paul Clement’s team they held two games in hand on both relegation rivals while also having a significantly superior goal difference.
“We CAN make the great escape,” declared the local Evening Gazette’s giant backpage banner headline as Agnew set out to exacerbate Wenger’s recent woes while ignoring the reality that Boro were the only English League side to have failed to record a victory during 2017.
If registering a first League win since mid-December seemed a tall order here, Arsenal arrived looking strangely out of sorts and thoroughly distracted by Wenger’s delay in announcing whether he will or will not be in charge at the Emirates next season.
Down to seventh in the table, Arsenal had lost five of their previous eight League matches, failed to win away since January and arrived on Teesside on the back of four straight away league defeats, each featuring the concession of three goals.
Ten points adrift of fourth-placed Manchester City, albeit with a couple of games in hand, the time for drastic action had arrived. Cue the extraction of a tactical rabbit from Wenger’s hat in the form of a switch to a back three for the first time in 20 years.
The last time they were configured with a central defensive trinity was in 1997 but Wenger accepted something had to change. “We’ve lost a lot of direct fights centrally so it will get us a bit stronger in the air,” he said before the kick-off.
It took only four minutes for Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, right wing-back for the night, to emphasise he is not really a natural defender by collecting a yellow card for catching Fabio de Silva the home left-back, late.
Having tried four different formations in as many games – back three included – Agnew reverted to 4-3-3. With Fabio frequently advancing and Gaston Ramírez showing off some classy, defender de-stabilising, touches, Boro began brightly. Suddenly feeling a chill possibly occasioned by more than just the fast coolling evening Arsenal’s manager reached for the comforting warmth of his winter duvet coat and zipped it up tightly to the neck.
Happily for the Frenchman an injury to Fabio, replaced by George Friend, soon interrupted Boro’s rhythm, while Grant Leadbitter needed to watch his central midfield step after being booked for fouling Mesut Özil.
Although Arsenal could conceivably have had a penalty when Dani Ayala manhandled Olivier Giroud at a corner, neither side had mustered a shot on target as the half hour mark approached. Granted Marten de Roon had headed a partially cleared free-kick beyond Petr Cech but the midfielder was well offside. It had all turned a bit scrappy with both sides struggling to click into any sort of passing groove but then Aaron Ramsey had a volley blocked and shortly afterwards Alexis Sánchez directed another volley straight at Brad Guzan.
Sánchez though was merely warming up as, with half-time fast approaching, the forward temporarily forgot about his contract wrangles and wage demands to concentrate on sending a glorious 22-yard free-kick arcing over the wall and curving well beyond a static Guzan’s grasp.
Awarded in the wake of Adam Clayton’s felling of Granit Xhaka it prompted Wenger’s first smile and coincided with the start of a heavy rain shower which seemed to reflect Boro’s newly dampened optimism. Replays suggested Guzan was almost certainly unsighted by a somewhat over-staffed Boro wall but that would be scant consolation to those locals who had arrived hoping to witness an Easter miracle.
Then, just as jokes about anyone believing Teesside survival hopes could be resurrected really needing to see a doctor sharpish began circulating, the skies temporarily cleared and Boro equalised.
It began with the interception of a slightly slapdash Sánchez pass which permitted Stewart Downing to sashay down the right before cutting inside on his left foot and lifting a sublime cross in the direction of Álvaro Negredo. Bisecting a couple of defenders the Spaniard proceeded to beat Cech courtesy of a fantastic flying volley. Arsenal might quickly have fallen behind but Cech kept Ayala’s close-range header out after a free-kick provoked panic among the visiting backline.
Those Arsenal fans in the “Wenger to remain” camp were looking a little crestfallen but Özil added a little credence to their campaign by restoring his side’s lead. With Boro’s defence taking their turn to lose shape, Sánchez’s chip and Ramsey’s chest down prefaced the German lashing home at the near post.