Ten Thoughts: Middlesbrough 1-2 Arsenal

Photo:  @hughwizzy

Nice one, Alexis. 

1. All right, hands up who saw that switch to 3-5-2 coming?

The thing is, as much attention as a lot of us pay to tactics and formations and such, a lot of a team's success will still come down to how well those systems are executed. It should be noted that for never having deployed this formation in a live match environment before, there were positives on display. Sure, there are also glaring issues that need to be addressed, but one step at a time.

If pressed to provide one example of each, I'd say the main negative is that we still don't look all that fluid going forward. That's not to take away from the fact that Middlesbrough are one of the more defensively-solid teams in the division, but there was still a lot of the same old sideways-passing dirge that has plagued our offensive game for years.

The positive though is that, at least as far as shape goes, we did at least come closer to impersonating a team that can defend. Middlesbrough had their chances for sure, but those tended to stem from individual errors more than gaping holes being left in our defensive formation. That is, fingers crossed, an easier thing to correct for than an endless array of unmarked tap-ins on the back post and whatever that was against West Brom.

2. I hate to harp on negatives after a win, even one like this that was a total slog at times. So, let's talk about some of the things that I liked, besides the obvious bit about the two goals we scored and the football match we won.

Rob Holding had a fantastic game on the left-hand side of the central defensive three. His contribution was vital, not least because that's the side of the field that contains our biggest gaping chest wound defensively, aka Nacho Monreal. The beauty of the system is that on several occasions, it was Holding rather than Monreal who was required to intervene at the end of a passage of play. Whatever else, that may have been the difference between victory and the unthinkable today.

3. Also, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was a revelation at right wing-back. Many of our best attacks came down that side, often because AOC seemed to be the only one willing to take on a man at times. The television commentators were mentioning that Hector Bellerin has been playing hurt since the game against the nearest and dearest, and that would frankly answer a lot of questions. If we're staying with this formation, and I see no reason why we shouldn't, perhaps it's best if Hector sat out for a while and recovered his health.

That said, the one blot on AOC's copybook is that he had two glorious chances to cap off impressive forays past the Boro defense right at the end of the match, and both were squandered. The first was smothered by the excellent Brad Guzan (yes, really) when others were better-placed, the second was fired into the side netting.

If our dude can find his shooting boots, we may have an intriguing weapon to bring with us to the FA Cup semifinal.

4. Now, here I present Twitter, summed up in one exchange.

Step 1: Ridiculous statement
Step 2: Ridiculous statement refuted with actual fact

The only thing that could make this even more the distilled essence of the platform is if the person had blocked me. Hell, there's still time.

5. I mean, I shouldn't even get involved in shit like that, but, you know:

It's all the more annoying to see on a day where, frankly, Petr Cech got us out of jail. The best save came off of a diving header from Daniel Ayala, which was the third in a series of: Middlesbrough goal - almost a second a little bit later - this chance. All of that was in the span of a harrowing few minutes, a sequence that truly should never have happened against a "can't score in a brothel" club like Boro. 

Stewart Downing - yes, he's still in the league somehow - was a thorn in our side all damn day, in this case sending a peach of a free kick into our penalty area. It somehow eluded everyone until a Boro man on the back post recycled the ball back into the center, where Ayala was waiting. Cech's positioning and rebound control were perfect, and we were able to clear. 

There was another instance that I noted on Twitter where the stupidity came from the commentating team. It was a corner kick, and a good one. Cech comes for it, clambers over and through a forest of bodies to punch it away enough to get it out of the penalty area, and Color Commentator Dipshit Man goes "Well, that wasn't very convincing".

I should learn to let a lot of the rampant ignorance about goalkeeping go, but I don't think I'll ever be able to...at least until I hang up my gloves myself, I guess.

6. The goal was super annoying, of course. And, as I noted in the Tweet exchange above, was not Cech's fault. I swear, one day I'm going to commemorate Monreal's time at the club by writing and publishing a coffee table book. At present, the working title is "The Best 500 Goals Conceded By Arsenal Because Nacho Fucking Monreal Can't Close Down Opposing Wingers". 

7. Anyway, low-key one of the real moments of relief today came at the final whistle, besides the obvious reasons. On a day where Grant Leadbitter had to play through a hamstring injury, Fabio Da Silva limped off after 16 minutes and guys were falling over every few minutes, we seem to have gotten through this one injury-free. 

I mean, did they just harvest the crops from this field minutes before the opening whistle?

8. Mesut Ozil led all Arsenal players with 4 tackles won today. But, you know, nicking a living, is a lazy git, etc and so on. 

Speaking of, how have I gotten this deep into the report without talking about the Arsenal goals? Alexis' free kick was a gorgeous bit of skill, absolutely unsaveable by god or man. You could maybe quibble about Guzan's placement behind the wall, but that shot was up over the wall and back down so fast, he was never keeping it out anyway. The Chilean was a bit quiet otherwise and did give the ball away too much for my liking, but he's here for moments of magic like that. 

The second goal was the end result of a trifecta of skillful plays. Alexis' chipped ball over the Boro back line was sumptuous, Aaron Ramsey's chest-down into the path of Ozil was brilliant, and the German's finish into the near corner was authoritative. What a stellar team goal that was.

9. Before we get to the last bit, I'd like to take this time to inform referee Anthony Taylor that his parents are of questionable lineage and he is hereby cordially invited to copulate with the farm animal of his choosing. Given the state of the pitch at the Riverside Stadium, I assume they're in ready supply.

Taylor was a questionable assignment for our match in the first place, given how relatively little time has passed since the pushing incident with Arsene Wenger. The bastard didn't even try to hide that it was still on his mind, too. Whether it was booking AOC in the 3rd minute for a foul that he wouldn't even whistle on a Boro player, or Ayala's best WWE bearhug on Olivier Giroud in the penalty area early on, or the various other incidents where they'd scythe down one of our guys only to be met with that derisory and condescending "get up" hand motion, our guy here didn't miss a trick. 

10. Still, shit referee or not, we got the three points and that was the most important thing. Now, consistency is badly required as we head into some of the biggest matches of the season. The FA Cup has to be the highest priority for obvious reasons, but second should be the upcoming North London Derby. At this stage, it's especially unlikely that we're going to get our St. Totteringham's Day this season, but at least driving a stake into their title hopes would go some way towards making up for the nine-alarm dumpster fire that has been this season.

To my eyes, the most vital question as to whether that will be possible is if we keep this new formation, and if so, if we can get more comfortable with it in the short amount of time we have left. I almost always keep notes of some fashion as I'm watching the match, and the one that stuck out to me as I started to write this was one moment late in the second half, when we were up 2-1. A passage of play ended with Monreal having a shot blocked, and the ball cannoned a fair distance out the other way. A Boro player took it and all of a sudden was somehow completely alone with just Monreal back covering. Eventually AOC turned on the afterburners and came back to tackle it away, but my question is how in the unearthly hell do we have that situation when there are three (3) center-halves on the pitch? Where were they? Why are they that far forward when the game situation way doesn't apply to that kind of recklessness?

It's things like that which belie formations to a large extent. I still believe it's the manager who is ultimately responsible for that void of leadership and discipline, and why frankly I'm still not all that hopeful that we'll come good when it matters. I mean, someone said on a forum I post at, right at the final whistle, "All right, we're slightly better than Middlesbrough!". It was snark, of course, but on the other hand it has that grain of truth, doesn't it? We went life and death with a relegation certainty, which in one case is understandable because they're fighting for their lives, but then again they're one of the most inept clubs offensively in the Premier League era. 

All I'm saying is let's maybe keep the advice of one Winston Wolf in mind, eh?

Man of the Match: Finally, an Arsenal player for once. Step up, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain