Arsene Wenger swung the axe for the trip to the Riverside. Petr Cech and Laurent Koscielny returned from injury, and there were recalls for Rob Holding, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Aaron Ramsey, and Olivier Giroud. Out went Emiliano Martinez, Hector Bellerin, Skhodran Mustafi, Mohamed Elneny, Theo Walcott, and Danny Welbeck. There was pre-match speculation that the boss had opted to go with a back three. At kick-off that is certainly how we set up.
A couple of early crosses from Oxlade-Chamberlain came to nought and he was carded as early as the fourth minute for bringing down Fabio. Leadbitter followed him into Anthony Taylor’s book for a nastier challenge on Mesut Ozil. When Negredo threatened Holding was quick to clear the danger. Boro were perhaps surprisingly enjoying territorial superiority in the opening phase of play.
On the quarter of an hour mark Fabio bowed out of the contest with what appeared to be a knee injury and on came Friend, also a left-back. From Arsenal’s first corner Ayala hauled Giroud to the floor apparently unseen by Mr Taylor. Goodness knows how he missed it. Gabriel headed wide under pressure from Friend. Boro responded with de Roon heading home from a clearly offside position after the visitors new-look defence moved out impressively.
In the 28th minute the Gunners came closest to opening their account when Oxlade-Chamberlain’s cross was headed down by Giroud into the path of Ramsey who saw his effort headed off the line for a corner. That set piece ended with Alexis hitting a tame effort into the ground for Guzan to save comfortably. Was a fairly pedestrian affair springing into life?
A rapid break from Oxlade-Chamberlain just after the half-hour saw Giroud and Alexis thwarted by desperate last-ditch blocks by Boro defenders. Ramsey’s foul on Gibson gave the hosts the chance to lump the ball into the box again, but not for the first time Koscielny out-jumped everyone to head clear.
Clayton’s unpunished lunge into Granit Xhaka gave us a free-kick opportunity on the edge of the box. Alexis clipped a beauty over the wall and celebrated as it dipped into the corner of the net. With three minutes to the break we had the lead.
Middlesbrough 0-1 Arsenal
Gabriel picked up our second yellow card for a foul that presented Ramirez an opportunity to follow Alexis’ example, but he hit a tame effort straight into the wall. The travelling faithful, in much better spirits than last week, taunted the locals with a chorus of “How shit must you be, we’re winning away!” Cue the whistle. The back three experiment was working, it seemed.
However, the new-look defence crumbled in only the fifth minute after the restart. Alexis’ misplaced attempted pass was switched to Downing who raced clear down the right, cut inside Nacho Monreal, and crossed to Negredo who had found space in between defenders to head home from point-blank range. All square, would the mood change again?
Middlesbrough 1-1 Arsenal
We almost folded again when multiple defensive failings weren’t punished by Downing who blasted a good opportunity into row Z. Worryingly the slow, painful, sideways passing returned. Where was the speed of thought and pass? Whither the creativity? A set piece was half-cleared to Xhaka and his effort appeared to strike a hand. Was it Giroud or a defender. Tougher spot for the officials this time.
Credit the travelling faithful. A chorus of “Alexis Sanchez baby”, among other favourite chants, clearly an attempt to lift fragile confidence. Boro came within a whisker of the lead on the hour when Ayala’s header was kept out by a mixture of determination, blind panic, and Cech’s reflexes. Ramirez found himself one on one with, fortunately, Oxlade-Chamberlain. There was only one winner of that race.
Alexis and Ozil were denied by equally desperate defending as the game went into an end to end phase with both teams requiring all three points for different reasons. With just over twenty minutes remaining Ramirez made way for the pacy Traore. He immediately left Holding and Monreal in his wake before running into a blind alley in front of Cech.
Then a moment of inspiration when Alexis picked out Ramsey in the box and the Welshman chested the ball into the path of the onrushing Ozil who blasted the ball in at the near post before Guzan could react. “We’ve got Ozil” rang around the Riverside.
Middlesbrough 1-2 Arsenal
Ayala, at full stretch, just about took it away from Giroud who would otherwise have been clear with quarter of an hour remaining. Negredo forced Cech into another save, diving to his right, but Arsenal appeared to be in control at this point. Boro made their final substitution, sending on the lanky Gestede for de Roon.
In the 81st minute Giroud made a yard of space for himself on the edge of the box but placed his effort wide of the far post. That third goal was being sought but we were not attacking recklessly. Clayton’s cross into a crowded area was met by the head of Ayala, but again Cech was presented with a comfortable save. The ‘keeper was given a much sterner examination when a lofted free-kick gave Gibson a huge opportunity to equalise with less than four minutes of the ninety remaining.
That prompted a double substitution by the Gunners in the last minute. Francis Coquelin and Bellerin came on for the goalscorers, Alexis and Ozil. Huge respect to the visiting support for an immediate double rendition of the Hector Bellerin song in the wake of the club throwing him under a bus in respect of the supporter unrest at Palace.
They deserved to witness a win after making that long journey on a Monday night. All in all a better, if still slightly less than convincing, performance should raise spirits all round ahead of Sunday’s big day out at Wembley.