First the good news: Arsenal remain top of the English Premier League.
Now the bad: It’s down to one point, and Middlesbrough performed like no-one could possibly have expected them to perform: scintillatingly, authoritatively, brilliantly.
Yes, we played badly. Very badly. But to emphasize this is a discredit to Middlesbrough, who played well. Very well. While other teams that try to do what Reading did (but failed) against us are praised to the hilt for ‘a commited performance’, which is little more than a euphemism for desperate defending, Middlesbrough deserve genuine plaudits for their performance.
I have not seen Arsenal outplayed like that in a while. Wenger has said that ‘they defended well’, but that skews the picture somewhat. In the opening minutes, I thought that Rochemback and O’Neil were nothing more than mugs on the ball who would get shown up as the game wore on. How wrong I was – their distribution was excellent, continually finding the dangerous – you read that right – Jeramie Aliadiere.
To say they defended well discounts what the Middlesbrough midfield did. Their passing matched Arsenal’s man for man, with room to spare. Their triangles and first touch was in tune while Arsenal’s never got started.
Rosicky’s first touch was off almost the whole match – a microcosm of Arsenal’s play the whole day, when a player like that cannot get basic techniques right, the rest of the side has no chance. Gilberto tried to counter his anonymity with some aggression early on, but by match’s end, his performance was conspicuous by its absence.
Sites like Arsenal Analysis miss the point in their scathing attack on Arsenal’s play – it was not so much Arsenal playing badly as Middlesbrough playing unbelievably well. They played Arsenal off the park, and I cannot remember when I have actually felt more…neutral and collected after witnessing such a thing happen.
At times it felt like the referee was doing Middlesbrough a favour or two, especially when you consider that there were three corners that should have been awarded to Arsenal that weren’t. You try convincing me that we would have done anything off of them, though.
Wenger says we deserved to lose. And he is right. We can go on about Hleb, Flamini, van Persie and Fabregas not being there – as unlucky as it is to have all of them out at the same time, injuries happen in a season – but we have often cited Arsenal’s ‘strength in depth’, and the time often comes to properly demonstrate that. In the Carling Cup, this side might have won, but Middlesbrough needed the league win, and they duly delivered.
Third-Gen ratings as follows:
- Almunia – 6: Bad positioning for when Aliadiere won the penalty, but had two good saves in the match, the second unfortunately still leading to Tuncay’s sharp finish. Nearly saved the penalty, mind you.
- Sagna – 5: Aliadiere had his number. The linkup with Eboue did not happen today, and continual backtracking showed a missing quality in midfield, and an off-day for the Frenchman.
- Toure – 6: His foul lead to the penalty, but recovered well on several occassions. His backtracking tackle on Tuncay in the second half was typical Kolo, but no Arsenal players are getting showered with praise today.
- Gallas – 6: Had several brilliant blocks that are a forte of William’s, but his captaincy was mute today – tried to pep players up with no success.
- Clichy – 5: Visibly jaded, and was not the usual danger he can be. First time crosses need serious work, but then so do the forwards’ runs into the box.
- Eboue – 5: Retaliated against a foul that could have gotten him sent off, though there were no more histrionics after that. It seems he needs the stupid moments to produce his brilliant ones; the correlation figures as he had a quiet day.
- Diarra – 5.5: He knows he can provide a creative spark from midfield, but could not find it anywhere today. Could not wriggle out of the Boro midfield closing down on him, and was replaced by Denilson.
- Gilberto – 4.5: Anonymous in the bad way. Passing was off, lost the ball too often, and had he known Aliadiere was going to play so well today, he might have thought it best to cover him. Another bad performance this season.
- Rosicky – 5.5: Got a consolation goal in the dying seconds, and not many would have noticed how sublime the finish was. However, his touch was drastically off today, the passes didnt find their man, and his forays down the left flank never seemed to worry his opponents.
- Eduardo – 3: Yet another blank from the Croatian. Did nothing at all. Next please.
- Adebayor – 5: Many teams rightfully consider him a dangerous presence, and Boro gave him enough respect to cancel out most of his attempts. Had a header that came close, and tried a few runs at the defence without any success.
Substitutes: Denilson, Walcott and Bendtner can get sixes. Arsenal improved once this trio made it onto the pitch, but the damage had already been done, and Boro’s second goal soon followed.
Man of the Match? You’re taking the piss if you’re asking me that – on the Arsenal side (and let’s get this part over with), it was a joint team failure rather than one person’s fault that we lost. Gallas blocked at least two shots that could have made the scoreline more drastic, but as he was the captain of this mess, I cannot award him with any consolation. In the end, the only person who I can pick out that was the least to blame for the team’s performance was Manuel Almunia. His positioning was incorrect leading up to the penalty, but he nearly saved it to be fair, and made a handful of stops to be happy with.
The real man of the match, if you have not already guessed, is Jeramie Aliadiere. Who knows what might have happened had he not been so unlucky with injury in his eight seasons at Arsenal. His runs were lightning quick, dangerous, and probing. He won the penalty, and was the reason why the Arsenal defence could never advance any further than centre circle. I take my hat off to the man – vindication must be sweet.
All that is left now is to dust ourselves off, and do what we must, injuries permitting, to ready ourselves for Saturday’s clash with Chelsea. I am far from downhearted after the loss – a lull was always going to happen somewhere. Time for Wenger to start earning his pay packet.
His team selection was far from ‘wrong’, as certain quarters will argue. The team is all he could have chosen. The performance was what was wrong, and players like Gilberto and Eduardo are going to have to do some soul searching soon.
Wenger remarked on the low confidence in the current side, and praised Boro for their performance, saying:
“We deserved to lose. Middlesbrough were sharper in the fight overall. We lost as well because it was a team who lacked confidence. We lacked creativity and sharpness in our passing, we gave them too much room, we were jaded — it’s our fourth away trip on the trot.“
It’s far from the end of the world, just remember. There will be more news once injuries become easier to read into. “Don’t Panic”, as Douglas Adams once said.
As they say in Australia: “She’ll be right”. I hope.