Arsenal 0-0 Middlesbrough: Champions League Hangover

These games happen.

Last season, Leicester drew with Bournemouth (by this scoreline) and West Brom at home; Aston Villa, Bournemouth (again), and Stoke away..among seven other draws against bigger sides. They won the league by 10 points.

Fluke team? WORST LEAGUE CHAMPS EVER INNIT INNIT INNIT? Fine. Two seasons ago, Chelsea drew Burnley at home, and away they lost to Newcastle, West Brom (3-0!!!)...oh, and drew against Sunderland. They won the league by 8 points.

So, let's all relax. As those plucky little underdogs Manchester United showed on Monday past, sometimes a small team can play 10 center-halves and gut out a draw if their discipline holds and they ride their luck a bit. Snark towards Jose Mourinho aside, Middlesbrough could (should?) have won this game outright, to be fair.

I don't know. Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that there wasn't any rotation other than Mohamed Elneny coming in for the suspended Granit Xhaka, but the guys looked a little...shagged out. There was possession - a lot of it (try 72% by game's end), but as much as we huffed and puffed there wasn't a way around the wall of blue shirts in front of Victor Valdes' goal.

After about 15 minutes of sterile domination (think a bored Long Island housewife reading Fifty Shades of Grey), all we had to show for it was a rather ambitious penalty shout, rightly - I think - turned down by Mike Dean. Sure enough, Boro went right up the other end and damn near scored twice.

We lost the ball at the halfway line when Laurent Koscielny dithered badly, and they countered quickly and well. Adama Traoré was played in alone, but Petr Cech came out well to cut down the angle. He saved with his feet, and was up quickly enough to save the rebound. The second save was brilliant, but why Alvaro Negredo opted to go short side with the far side gaping is an absolute mystery to me.

Virtually seconds later, Boro won a free kick on another counter, and Cech could only watch as Gaston Ramirez curled it over the wall and onto the bar. That was the theme of the half - we had all of the ball, they had all of the chances.

Valdes made a decent save on a free kick by Alexis Sanchez, but continuing that theme, Boro stormed straight back up the pitch and should have been ahead again. This time, Traoré crossed it in, one of their guys won the second ball, and it looped out to Ramirez unmarked on the far post. He thumped in a header, but Cech was there to batter it away. While it was right at him, to be fair, the brilliance in that save was in the rebound control. Check out this picture from Getty Images - had he not deflected it out, they had two guys there to tuck in the rebound.

We did have one more chance before the half, but Mesut Ozil was a half-step too slow to get to Theo Walcott's dragback across the six-yard box.

That was the thing, really. Those two, Alexis, and Alex Iwobi were a bit off the pace all game long. When the defense is massed in front of you like this, either they have to make a mistake or there has to be some kind of moment of brilliance to unlock enough space to fashion quality chances. Forget moments of brilliance, there weren't that many moments of competence today.

But, like I said, it happens in a 38-game season. The lot down the other end of the Seven Sisters aren't too happy with their day's work, either.

Still, there was one shining moment where, like the Ludogorets game at midweek, we could have grabbed the second half by the throat with an early goal. It was a gift from Valdes, too, and let's be clear about this guy. He is right up there with Asmir Begovic to me as the most overrated goalkeepers of their generation. Beyond the fact that literally any professional keeper could win with THAT Barcelona team, the dude has always had a ricket or two in his locker. There's a reason he never came anywhere near dislodging Iker Casillas from the Spanish national side, that's for sure.

Anyway, Valdes got caught up with two of his defenders in dealing with a nothing cross, and in the end the keeper dropped it. Alexis was there, and though the angle was tight, a shot was probably doable. Instead, he sent a looping ball across the six, and Walcott just couldn't time it right to meet it with a header.

It was just one of those days.

Oh, right, Valdes did make a decent stop on a long-range shot from Alexis. Credit to him, that was a good save.

As the second half wore on, we brought on Lucas Perez and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain for Iwobi and Elneny, but it didn't change much. Boro held their ground, worked hard for one another, and closed down the spaces brilliantly. Really, they deserved their point.

How easily it could have been all three, though. Our guys mentally switched off a bit at the end, perhaps because they had even more of the ball than usual. It was that man Traoré again, who won the ball and played Negredo in alone. At this point I probably would have backed Cech to save it anyway, but Koscielny somehow made up the distance and came up with a brilliant saving tackle from behind. If he got that even 5% wrong, penalty and red card and ballgame.

Meanwhile, we had one glorious chance in injury time, and even finally found the back of Valdes' net. Unfortunately, the AR was well-placed to see that Ozil was about a mile and a half offside before he flicked it over the advancing keeper. Bugger.

Again, this stuff happens sometimes. If you had been offered 20 points and a +10 GD from the first nine league matches, and to be top of the pile in our Champions League group after three games (knowing that Paris away was in there), you'd have taken it...I'd have take it, and so would your Aunt Tilly, who doesn't even like football.

The fact that the next match is the League Cup against Reading is a welcome break from more pressing matters. I would expect that guys like Alexis and Ozil and Theo, who have all played a ton of minutes so far, will be nowhere near the starting XI on that occasion. Rest up, boys. More important games are coming. As for this one? Forget it, it's already over, and it's one point gained on a day where we probably deserved nothing.

Man of the Match: Adama Traoré

Preview by Numbers: Arsenal v. Middlesbrough

Emirates Stadium, London
Saturday, October 22
10:00 a.m. EDT, 15:00 BST
  • Match Officials
    • Referee: Mike Dean
    • Assistants: Simon Long and Ian Hussin
    • 4th Official: Tim Robinson
  • This Match, Last Time: Arsenal 2 - 0 Middlesbrough (April 26, 2009)
  • All-Time in All Competitions: 64 Arsenal wins, 33 Middlesbrough wins, 33 draws
  • Arsenal's League Form: W-W-W-W-W-W
  • Middlesbrough's League Form: D-L-L-L-D-L
  • Weather: Clear, 55 °F / 13 °C
We're all worried about how far this thumb thing has gone.
I was unable to see Wednesday's match against Ludogorets as I sat in a windowless conference room all day waiting for a meeting that never started. While accomplishing some business, I took note of the fact that it seemed like every time I turned back to check the score of the match, Arsenal had scored another goal. There might have been some nervy moments through the opening 40 minutes or so, but there's no denying that Arsenal are a team that is brimming with confidence right now.

That said, Arsène Wenger has clearly tried to temper expectations and I think that's the right thing to do right now. It is October and titles are not won in October. They can be lost in October, for sure, but they can't be won just yet.

So, Arsenal have to keep taking it one match at a time and with that, they'll host promoted Middlesbrough at the Emirates. Boro started the season with a string of decent results but are now winless in six, but they've only lost once away from home this season. Every match in the Premier League is a challenge and title contenders have to pick up three points from the "easier" fixtures. Anything less undermines the other results they've picked up.

Arsenal Squad News

Out: Ramsey (hamstring,) Mertesacker (knee,) Welbeck (knee)
Doubts: Giroud (toe,) Jenkinson (knee)
Suspended: Xhaka (first of three, serious foul play)

Xhaka's red card has been pretty controversial on the
Internet, but there's a significant enough contingent out
there, including former refs, who believe the call was correct.
Arsenal made four changes on Wednesday from the side that had beaten Swansea at the weekend. Tomorrow, I'd expect the squad to revert back to the same XI from the weekend, with the exception of the suspended Granit Xhaka. Some were upset that Xhaka, unavailable domestically until the North London derby on November 6, was benched in favor of Francis Coquelin on Wednesday, but I could see both sides of that coin. Coquelin, coming back from an injury he suffered against Chelsea, needed the minutes to get back to game speed, especially now that Arsenal will need to rely on him over the coming weeks with the Swiss midfielder banned.

Team news is always scant when I'm writing this on Thursdays following a Wednesday night match, so I'm going to assume that there are no new returns on the horizon. Is Olivier Giroud still in that black hole? Does Aaron Ramsey have hamstrings anymore? Will Carl Jenkinson be match fit to play in next week's League Cup tie? Do I have any more questions to put in here?

Predicted XI: Čech, Bellerín, Mustafi, Koscielny, Monreal, Coquelin, Cazorla, Iwobi, Walcott, Özil, Alexis.

Middlesbrough Squad News

Out: Chambers (loan terms,) Leadbitter (hernia)
Doubts: Husband (shoulder,) Fábio (match fitness)

He might be at Boro, but he's still getting beard advice from
Olivier Giroud.
Calum Chambers, on loan from Arsenal, has started three consecutive matches for Boro but will be ineligible here to face his parent club. That likely means that Daniel Ayala, who lost his spot in the back four to Chambers, will return to the XI to deputize.

Club captain Grant Leadbitter is out until December after he had surgery in July to repair a hernia problem. Elsewhere, James Husband has been out with a dislocated shoulder and Fábio da Silva will likely miss out as he lacks match fitness.

Boro play a standard 4-2-3-1 formation with Álvaro Negredo, on loan from Valencia, starting up top. Stewart Downing returned to his boyhood club last summer and starts on the left with Gastón Ramírez, formerly at Southampton, in the middle. They could start either Adama Traoré or Cristhian Stuani on the right.

Middlesbrough signed both Victor Valdés and Brad Guzan as goalkeepers this summer. Valdés has been the starter, aside from a few matches missed through a hamstring injury.

Predicted XI: Valdés, Barragán, Ayala, Gibson, Friend, Forshaw, de Roon, Traoré, Ramírez, Downing, Negredo.

Current Form

Do you think this guy just follows Özil around?
Well, the run continues. Arsenal have now won seven straight across all competitions, six straight in the Premier League, and have won nine of their last ten overall. Arsenal will look to extend their winning streak to seven in the league, something they last accomplished between February 10 and April 11 of 2015. Those were wins over Leicester, Crystal Palace, Everton, QPR, West Ham, Newcastle, Liverpool, and Burnley, though it should be noted that they also crashed out of Europe to Monaco during that time frame. The streak came crashing to a halt when soon-to-be-crowned-champions Chelsea came to the Emirates and got the scoreless draw they wanted.

Middlesbrough started their first Premier League campaign since 2008/09 with a decent string of results, picking up a draw at home to Stoke, a win at Sunderland, and a draw at West Brom. Five points through three league games left Boro in sixth place at the September international break (they were a point ahead of Arsenal at the time.) They haven't won since and have picked up only a single point since then as well, nabbing a 1-1 draw at the Olympic Stadium against West Ham. They've lost matches to Crystal Palace, Everton, Spurs, and Watford and currently sit in 17th place, out of the relegation zone only on goal difference above Stoke. They also crashed out of the League Cup at the first hurdle to Championship side Fulham.

Match Facts

Arsenal and Middlesbrough last met in the fifth round of the 2015 FA Cup. Boro came into the Emirates with their tails up, having upset Manchester City at the Etihad at the previous hurdle. Of course, teams rarely come up with giant killings twice in a row, since the second team won't (or, at least, shouldn't) be caught by surprise. Pre-beard Olivier Giroud scored twice within two first-half minutes as Arsenal ran out 2-0 winners, en route to their second consecutive FA Cup title.

The clubs have not met in the league since Boro were relegated in 2008/09. The last time league meeting between the sides was at the Emirates on April 26, 2009; Cesc Fàbregas scored twice as Arsenal won 2-0. The reverse fixture at Riverside Stadium in December of 2008 was a damaging 1-1 draw, where ex-Arsenal striker Jérémie Aliadière canceled out Emmanuel Adebayor's opener. At the time, the draw left Arsenal eight points adrift of the top spot in the league and while it would prove to be the third match in an 21-match unbeaten run in the league, Arsenal drew nine of those and never climbed higher than fourth.

Arsenal have not dropped points at home to a promoted side since a 3-3 draw with Norwich City in 2012, which came in May of that season anyway. Arsenal's last loss at home to a side that had spent the previous season in the Championship was to Newcastle United, 1-0 on an Andy Carroll header, in November of 2010.

The Referee

Mike Dean denies Sunderland a penalty here, despite Per
Mertesacker's arm being in an unnatural position.
The referee is Wirral-based Mike Dean, which you might recognize as a bad sign for Arsenal. Dean, of course, found himself duped by Diego Costa at Stamford Bridge last September, missing his elbow to the head of Laurent Koscielny before sending off Gabriel for a kick-out, a call which was later rescinded. Arsenal ended that 2-0 loss to Chelsea on nine men after Santi Cazorla was later sent off for a second yellow.

After that, I was surprised Arsenal saw Dean at all for the rest of the year (recall, after Anthony Taylor made a mess of that opening day fixture to Aston Villa in 2013, Arsenal did not have Taylor again for a full calendar year.) Still, Arsenal saw Dean twice more, both scoreless draws, first to Hull City in the FA Cup (in which Dean denied Arsenal two penalties) and second to Sunderland (in which Dean denied both sides a penalty.)

Middlesbrough had Mike Dean once last season, for an enormous fixture against Brighton & Hove Albion on May 7. Both sides, level on points going into the final match of the season, knew that win would clinch promotion. On goal difference, a draw was enough for Boro, which is exactly what they got. At 1-1, Dean sent off Brighton goal scorer Dale Stephens for a rash challenge on Gastón Ramirez, and Boro defended well for the duration, knowing a draw was enough.

Around the League
  • Saturday (early): Bournemouth v. Tottenham Hotspur; Vitality Stadium, Bournemouth
  • Saturday: Burnley v. Everton; Turf Moor, Burnley
  • Saturday: Hull City v. Stoke City; KCOM Stadium, Kingston-upon-Hull
  • Saturday: Leicester City v. Crystal Palace; King Power Stadium, Leicester
  • Saturday: Swansea City v. Watford; Liberty Stadium, Swansea
  • Saturday: West Ham United v. Sunderland; Olympic Stadium, London
  • Saturday (late): Liverpool v. West Bromwich Albion; Anfield, Liverpool
  • Sunday (early): Manchester City v. Southampton; Etihad Stadium, Manchester
  • Sunday (late): Chelsea v. Manchester United; Stamford Bridge, London
John Painting is a contributing writer to the Modern Gooner and a lean, mean, preview writing machine. You can follow him on Twitter @zorrocat for lean, mean tweets.