INTENSE: Arsenal's Rob Holding (left) and Middlesbrough's Adama Traore
IT HAD felt like an age, maybe perhaps because it was, but Arsenal finally managed to win away from home in Monday evening’s trip to the Riverside stadium. On a tricky surface and in incessant rain, Middlesbrough would have felt that they could get at a vulnerable Arsenal side, who had suffered four consecutive away day Premier League losses.
When Alvaro Negredo levelled after Alexis Sanchez had given the Gunners a first half lead with a superb free kick, the Boro faithful would have felt that a vital three points to navigate a safe Premier League passage away from the drop zone was within their grasp.
Had Daniel Ayala found the target instead of Petr Cech, the home side would have gone ahead, but it was left to the recently much maligned Mesut Ozil to strike Arsenal’s second when Aaron Ramsey chested down Alexis’s cross.
Ayala was perhaps lucky to still be on the pitch, having grappled Olivier Giroud to the ground in the area following a corner. Referee Anthony Taylor will look back and see that he made the wrong call, the Gunners were denied a nailed on penalty.
Arsenal had made six changes and elected to play a three man defence for the first time ever under Arsene Wenger. Rob Holding, Gabriel and the returning Laurent Koscielny adapted to the new system, with Nacho Monreal and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain providing the width.
Gabriel remains somewhat of a conundrum. Still finding his way in the Premier League, his propensity to want to play out often ends up with his side losing the ball, and that is a liability Arsene Wenger could well do without in the remaining seven Premier League fixtures.
Oxlade-Chamberlain enjoyed a positive night and could have netted late on. Following the final whistle, he thanked the travelling supporters and also in a move to head off any perceived player apathy, expressed how the players had to respond following recent poor performances, and also what a privilege it is to play for Arsenal.
The win nevertheless lifts Arsenal into sixth place, but still seven points off a top four finish. Following the win, Wenger gave the rationale behind his defensive re-think after two decades at the helm.
“ I felt that we were recently a bit vulnerable defensively and to give a bit more reassurance to the team. Recently we faced many direct games, I thought before the game maybe they’d play with Gestede and Negredo and go for a very direct game. Those are the reasons.
“ It worked well in the first half, we didn’t give any chances away and we were quite solid on set-pieces. In the second half on one or two occasions, I felt we could have been a bit more dominant in the air, but overall yes.
GOAL: Middlesbrough's Alvaro Negredo celebrates scoring his side's first goal of the game with Marten de Roon (top)
“ The first time in 20 years, that shows you that even in my age you can change. But sometimes when a team lacks confidence, just to add something new to believe helps to focus and overall the fact that we conceded three at West Brom, three at Crystal Palace, I felt it was needed.”
With damaging losses at Liverpool, West Bromwich and Crystal Palace, Arsenal seemed to be a team finding it’s way again, but even this resurgence could ultimately come to cost the club and especially with the top four places. Wenger was adamant that his side will need to continue the winning habit for the last seven Premier League fixtures.
“ For us the clarity is there. We have to win every game to have a chance to get into the top four and starting tonight. I think we give a bit more, made it seem a bit more serene, you could see that in some occasions we were a bit overcautious tonight and played with situation we are not used to, and hopefully that will give us a bit more confidence.”
Arsenal face Manchester City in the FA Cup semi-final at Wembley on Sunday. Chelsea face Tottenham Hotspur a day earlier, and Wenger now wants his side to return to a winning Wembley habit.
“ Let’s focus on that. You have a little break from the Premier League now and after the end of the season will come very quickly. Sunday, let’s prepare well for the game. We played City two weeks ago, we play them again on Sunday so it will be completely different because we are at Wembley and it will be interesting."
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