Arsène Wenger unveiled a new formation and his players remembered how to win away as Middlesbrough were left wondering what might have been had Steve Agnew replaced Aitor Karanka a little earlier.
Agnew has taken only two points from his five games in charge and Boro’s aim of avoiding relegation looks even less feasible than the prospect of Arsenal finishing in the top four but the Teessiders’ performances have improved markedly.
So much so that not only were Wenger’s experimental back three frequently made to sweat but the second half was sufficiently exciting for spectators to justify the decision to miss Broadchurch’s eagerly awaited denouement on TV.
With Hull and Swansea losing on Saturday, Middlesbrough had been teased by renewed hope. Six points behind Marco Silva’s 17th-placed side and two adrift of Paul Clement’s team with games in hand the possibilities tantalised.
“We CAN make the great escape,” declared the local Evening Gazette’s giant backpage banner headline, conveniently ignoring the reality that Boro are the only English League side not to have recorded a victory during 2017.
If registering a first league triumph since mid-December seemed a tall order, Arsenal appeared strangely out of sorts and thoroughly distracted by Wenger’s delay in announcing whether he will still be in charge next season.
Arsenal had lost five of their previous eight league matches, failed to win away since January and arrived at the Riverside on the back of four straight away league defeats, each featuring the concession of three goals.
They departed having climbed to sixth and closed the gap on fourth-placed Manchester City to a still daunting seven points with a game in hand. It may be too little too late but this mild improvement reflected the extraction of a tactical rabbit from Wenger’s chapeau in the form of a switch to a defensive trinity for the first time in 20 years.
The last time Arsenal were configured in this way was in 1997 but the reappearance of 3-4-3 confirmed their manager accepted something had to change.
Initially this velvet revolution looked less than seamless as Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, right wing-back for the night, took only four minutes to emphasise he is not a natural defender by collecting a yellow card for catching Fábio da Silva, the home left-back, late.
Having tried four different formations in as many games – back three included – Agnew reverted to 4-3-3. With Gastón Ramírez showing off some classy, defender-destabilising, touches, Boro began brightly. Suddenly feeling a chill possibly occasioned by more than just the fast cooling evening Arsenal’s manager reached for the comforting warmth of his club winter duvet coat and zipped it up tightly.
Happily for him an injury to Fábio soon interrupted Boro’s rhythm, while Grant Leadbitter needed to watch his central midfield step after being booked for fouling Mesut Özil.
Although Arsenal could conceivably have had a penalty when Dani Ayala manhandled Olivier Giroud at a corner, neither side had mustered a shot on target as the half-hour mark approached.
Granted Marten de Roon had headed a partially cleared free-kick beyond Petr Cech but the midfielder was well offside. Both sides were struggling to click into any sort of passing groove but then Aaron Ramsey and Alexis Sánchez had a volley blocked and saved by Brad Guzan respectively. Sánchez was merely warming up and, with half-time fast approaching, the striker sent a 22-yard free-kick arcing over the wall for it to curve and dip well beyond a static Guzan.
Awarded in the wake of Adam Clayton’s felling of Granit Xhaka it prompted Wenger’s first smile of the match and coincided with the start of a heavy rain shower which seemed to reflect Boro’s dampened optimism.
Guzan was almost certainly unsighted by a somewhat over-staffed Boro wall but that would be scant consolation to those locals who had arrived hoping to witness an Easter miracle.
Then, just as jokes about anyone believing survival dreams could be resurrected really needed to see a doctor sharpish, began circulating, the skies temporarily cleared and Boro equalised.
It began with the interception of a slightly slapdash Sánchez pass which permitted Stewart Downing to sashay down the right before cutting inside on his left foot and lifting a sublime cross in the direction of Álvaro Negredo. Bisecting a couple of defenders he proceeded to beat Cech courtesy of a fantastic flying volley.
Arsenal might quickly have fallen behind but Cech somehow kept out Ayala’s close-range header after a free-kick provoked panic among the backline. Members of the “Wenger to remain” camp looked a little crestfallen but Özil added welcome credence to their campaign by restoring Arsenal’s lead. With the much vaunted Ben Gibson and his fellow Boro defenders taking a turn to lose shape, Sánchez’s chip and Ramsey’s chest down led to the Özil lashing home at the near post.
So much for Sánchez and Özil being unsettled – not to mention Wenger’s supposed status as Arsenal’s “yesterday’s man”.