Arsenal hosted promoted Middlesbrough on Wenger’s 67th birthday. The game was a closely contested draw which saw both sides waste their opportunities. The visitors attacked through Traoré looking to expose Monreal while the hosts tried unsuccessfully to break the deadlock by one-touch passes, quick one-twos and poorly directed through balls. As Sanchez, Özil and Walcott showed glimpses of their excellence the only viable and persistent attacking option for the home team was Alex Iwobi. The inability to break the deadlock, as well as the avoidance of blushes thanks to wonderful goalkeeping by Petr Čech, saw the young Nigerian get substituted for the Gunners’ only available attacking option. To no avail attack after attack was aimed down the Middlesbrough defensive line, but the lack of a physical presence saw the visitors steal a point from the current league leaders.
An unfortunate missed three points or a side lucky to escape with a draw, whatever your opinion, here are the four things we learned:
1. Pace Both a Strength and a Weakness
As Arsenal boast one of the fastest attacking outfits in the league, turning defense into attack into goals has been the main talking point in recent times, however, there is also a lack of pace in both midfield and defense. Xhaka and Elneny make up a physical side in the middle, while Monreal expertly covers the left side but none have much recovery pace
In today’s game, Traoré was highlighted as the danger man and he constantly made life miserable for the Spanish international. So confident were Middlesbrough that Traoré was switched intermittently to the left to cope defensively with Bellerin, then switched back when the Gunners’ attack was calmed, contained and pushed back. Every top side has weaknesses, but lack of pace is not one that can be coached out. A possible option may be the less reliable, but faster, Kieran Gibbs.
2. Čech’s Worth
When Wenger finally signed the world class goalkeeper from Chelsea, many bemoaned the fact that this signing was not followed by more reinforcements. Yet today Petr Čech showed his worth with a handful of outstanding saves to keep a clean sheet. The Czech international brings a long overdue sense of calm and experience to the back four and is an intimidating figure between the sticks. His clever and precise positioning, early passing for the counter, calmness on the ball and willingness to come for crosses all came together in yet another wonderful goalkeeping display to remind everyone why the number 33 is Arsenal’s first choice.
3. Expectation Anxiety
In today’s game, playing a side on seven straight wins in all competitions, Middlesbrough were clearly the underdogs but noticeably, something strange happens to Arsenal when wearing the title of favourites. An uncharacteristically tense performance from the start, along with misplaced passes and the failure to capitalise on chances all came together on what should have just been another day at the office. The negative habits of Arsenal sides gone by seem to be creeping in again, even if only temporarily. The struggle against lower half teams has been well documented and has been put on display again today.
A change of plan and tactics is required in order to maintain dominance over the various types of teams the Gunners will need to beat, and perhaps the lack of Giroud is a reason that the struggles have remained against sides that park the bus.
4. Missing Giroud
Substituting Alex Iwobi for Lucas Perez seemed a positive move from the 67-year-old manager, however, it also highlighted the lack of a physical presence in this Arsenal side’s attack. Against another deep-lying team more than willing to come to the Emirates and pack 10 players behind the ball, the Gunners again struggled to complete passes and find open men as easy as they have done recently . With no true focal point for attack, the mobile front line simply interchanged with one another only to find a different pair of players closing them down. With a couple of half-chances and offsides, Giroud’s height and ability to hold up play would have been ideal to switch up the game and allow for a plan B.
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