MIDDLESBROUGH, United Kingdom, Apr 18 – Goals from Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil ended Arsenal’s run of four successive away defeats with a scratchy 2-1 victory over struggling Middlesbrough in their Premier League clash on Monday.
The Gunners’ performance was far from convincing but will still bring some relief to their beleaguered manager Arsene Wenger.
There was a period after Alvaro Negredo scored an equaliser when Middlesbrough, who have won only four league games this season, looked capable of going on to claim their fifth scalp.
Arsenal are now seven points behind fourth-placed Manchester City with a game in hand, while Middlesbrough lie six points from safety and have also played one game fewer than most of the teams above them.
At least Arsenal’s trip to Teesside began far more smoothly than their previous away game at Crystal Palace when they were caught in London traffic and arrived shortly before the kick-off.
They reached Middlesbrough’s Riverside Stadium with plenty of time to spare, yet there was still a lack of direction on the pitch as they searched for a route to goal in the opening stages.
Wenger had made the sort of selection decisions that he usually reserves for cup ties against teams from lower divisions.
The French manager announced six changes from the team that lost 3-0 at Palace seven days earlier and, even more significantly, employed wing-backs alongside a defensive trio for the first time since 1997.
His tactical alterations did not provide instant results, although they did enjoy the bulk of the early possession and Olivier Giroud’s claims for a penalty when he was floored by Daniel Ayala certainly had some merit.
Arsenal’s attacking difficulties were not unexpected because Middlesbrough went into the game after conceding only 37 goals — two fewer than Wenger’s under-performing side.
– Deadlock broken –
Marten de Roon headed past the Arsenal goalkeeper Petr Cech midway through the opening half, but was offside — Middlesbrough were unimaginative and with 42 minutes gone, they were behind.
A foul by Adam Clayton on the edge of the area was a gift for Sanchez, the Chilean star flighted his free-kick over the wall and inside the post.
It was his 19th Premier League goal of the season and only three fewer than the entire Middlesbrough team going into this game, so it was a surprise that the home side suddenly looked capable of producing a response in the second half.
Middlesbrough were immediately on the front foot and levelled inside five minutes after Sanchez lost possession.
The hosts broke quickly down the right through Stewart Downing, whose cross was missed by Laurent Koscielny before Negredo steered it past Cech.
Suddenly, the game burst into life, with Downing heavily involved. The former England winger wasted an excellent opportunity when George Friend’s cross was allowed to reach him at the far post, then the pair combined again to carve out a chance for Ayala.
Downing’s cross was headed back towards goal by Friend and Ayala looked certain to score before he directed his header too close to Cech.
Arsenal’s response was impressive in the 63rd minute as Sanchez’s through ball picked out Ozil, but goalkeeper Brad Guzan sensed the danger and did well to save at the feet of the German international.
However, the outcome was different in their next confrontation eight minutes later.
Sanchez was involved again with a cross that was chested down by Aaron Ramsey, leaving Ozil with the chance to drill Arsenal back in front from close range.