Starting XI: Cech, Gabriel, Koscielny, Holding, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Xhaka, Ramsey, Monreal, Alexis, Ozil, Giroud
Subs: Martinez, Bellerin, Gibbs, Coquelin, Elneny, Walcott, Iwobi
Goals from Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil sealed Arsenal’s first Premier League away win since mid-January as Arsene Wenger’s men beat Middlesbrough 2-1 at the Riverside.
The Gunners, deploying a 3-5-2 formation, took the lead courtesy of a fine free kick from the Chilean just before the break and although Alvaro Negredo found an equaliser they stole the points thanks to Ozil’s clinical strike on 71 minutes.
Having conceded three goals in our last four away games defensive solidity was obviously on Arsene Wenger’s mind when he shifted to a five-man defence for the first time since the early days of his Highbury reign.
Rob Holding was selected next to Laurent Koscielny and Gabriel and the extra body at the back helped the Gunners, initially at least, swamp Boro’s lone forward Alvaro Negredo. Going forward the conservative selection meant we lacked an extra option in yellow and we looked somewhat ponderous on the ball.
In truth, the first 25 minutes reflected the context of the match as two out of form sides half-heartedly prowled forward without wanting to commit too much.
Arsenal’s best outlet was Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain who, despite an early booking for a foul on Fabio, enjoyed bombing forward on the right flank. The England international repeatedly got to the by-line to deliver a smorgasbord of crosses but rarely did we look like finishing off his good work.
There were efforts from Aaron Ramsey and Alexis Sanchez from corners and Olivier Giroud should have had a penalty after being wrestled to the ground by Daniel Ayala but chances, particularly from free play, were few and far between. The Gunners were therefore very grateful when Adam Clayton cleared out Granit Xhaka three yards outside the Boro box in a dead centre position just five minutes before the break.
Could Alexis Sanchez provide a rare spark of quality? Yes. An emphatic yes. With Brad Guzan covering his left side, the Chilean stepped up and curled the ball over the wall to the American’s right to break the deadlock. (1-0)
Boro came out with renewed purpose after the break and in the slanting rain took only five minutes to find an equaliser. Stewart Downing raced down the right flank, cut in on his left, chipped a ball over Koscielny for Negredo to clip the ball over Cech on the volley. (1-1)
With a draw no use to either side, the game became very stretched and chances flowed from end-to-end.
Calamitous defending from Gabriel and Monreal afforded Downing a chance to smash home a quick-fire second only for the ex-England winger to flash over. Not long after Cech stopped Daniel Ayala’s header at close range.
At the other end, Giroud had an effort blocked by Clayton and Guzan denied Ozil after the German burst through the defence. The less said about a Gabriel long-range shot the better.
After ramshackle stuff by both sides Arsenal finally put together a move of quality to restore our lead on 70 minutes.
Xhaka found Sanchez out wide on the left and with time on his side he clipped a ball into Ramsey who chested down for Ozil to drive a low shot inside Guzan’s near post. It was the German’s 11th goal of the season. (2-1)
Boro threatened a second equaliser as they launched free-kicks into the Gunners box before Arsene Wenger shut up shop taking off goalscorers Sanchez and Ozil and putting on Hector Bellerin and Francis Coquelin.
Twice in stoppage time Chamberlain should have added a gloss to the result but on both occasions he fluffed his lines with only Guzan to beat. Giroud then attempted a clever volley that just escaped past the post before Anthony Taylor blew for full time.
The win closes the gap on fourth place to seven points and gives us a confidence boost ahead of Sunday’s FA Cup semi-final with Manchester City. Judging by the way the players celebrated the win this evening you sense this might be an important stepping stone in rebuilding what’s left of our season.