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Middlesbrough 1-2 Arsenal: Signs of recovery for Arsene Wenger?
Last Updated: 18/04/17 10:50am
Arsene Wenger made big changes as Arsenal claimed a 2-1 win over Middlesbrough on Monday Night Football. It was by no means an outstanding performance, but were there signs of recovery?
Arsene Wenger did not seem overly receptive to the recent suggestion that he must be a "catalyst for change" if he stays at Arsenal.
The comments, made by chief executive Ivan Gazidis at a fans forum, prompted a frosty response from the Arsenal manager. "Football today is a lot of talks and talks and talks," he said. "But at the end of the day, good players on the pitch is more important than anything else."
On Monday night at the Riverside Stadium, however, there was evidence that Wenger might have been listening after all. Out went six of the players who started the 3-0 defeat to Crystal Palace last week, and out went the system too. For the first time since his first season at Arsenal, Wenger switched to a back three.
The new formation did not bring about a vintage display, and Wenger certainly still has plenty of work to do to convince his critics that he is the man to take the club forward, but a hint of tactical flexibility was a welcome development after the same old problems resurfaced in recent weeks.
"It wasn't a great performance from Arsenal but it was more important to get the result," said Sky Sports pundit Jamie Carragher. "They were never going to be at their best. Their confidence had taken a heavy knock but it was a huge win and it gives them a fighting chance for the top four."
Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil's goals provided moments to savour for Arsenal supporters, and after the meek surrender against Crystal Palace, there were also signs of fight from Wenger's players. In fact, the tracking data showed they ran almost 10 kilometres further than they did at Selhurst Park.
Arsenal's running stats
It was the kind of response that Wenger wanted. "I felt we were focused and committed," he told Sky Sports afterwards. "We did not play with full confidence but you can see the players have a good mentality. They wanted to win the game and they responded."
Alvaro Negredo's equalising goal highlighted Arsenal's ongoing defensive issues and Wenger's side were fortunate not to fall behind when Daniel Ayala's close-range header was scrambled away by Petr Cech, but there were encouraging individual performances too.
After struggling against Palace, Ozil was back on form at the Riverside. He completed 43 of his 46 passes, and his well-taken winner took him to two goals and two assists from his last four appearances. It is a return to the kind of productivity he offered last season, and there was application without the ball too. His total of four tackles was the joint-highest of his Premier League career.
Sanchez made the difference by scoring the opener and creating Arsenal's second, and there was also an eye-catching display from Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain at right wing-back. The 23-year-old grew into the game in a defensive sense, and he was a constant menace at the other end.
Carra: Huge win for Arsenal
Jamie Carragher gives his verdict on Arsenal's 2-1 win over Middlesbrough.
Only Granit Xhaka had more touches, and Oxlade-Chamberlain also had the confidence to run at Middlesbrough's backline at every opportunity. He completed more dribbles than any other player, and came close to scoring on two occasions in stoppage time. His first effort was well saved by Brad Guzan, his second rippled the side netting.
The win kept Arsenal's top-four hopes alive, and there were also attempts to lift the mood. Oxlade-Chamberlain was quick to thank Arsenal's travelling fans in his post-match interview, while Sanchez was eager to show some togetherness at the final whistle. The hugs and high fives may have been calculated but they were a welcome sight nonetheless.
"I thought that was telling," said Carragher. "They will have been stung by the criticism this week. It's difficult to lift yourself. The training ground becomes a dark place. But there are some big characters there, some experienced players. I think it felt like a big win for them. Not just for getting into the top four but for quelling the criticism they've had."
Arsenal have plenty more to work on ahead of next weekend's FA Cup semi-final with Manchester City, but they can make the trip to Wembley with some of their confidence restored. For Wenger, a little change made a big difference.