It is victories like these that mean Arsène Wenger will probably keep his job as Arsenal manager, but he is unlikely ever to sit comfortably at the Emirates again.
No matter what happens in the summer, whether Wenger stays or goes, it will never be the same. Things have changed, opinions have altered, opposition has hardened.
The tide has shifted and Wenger will find he is constantly swimming against it. He has been criticised, but it has never been as widespread as this. He has provoked anger at times, but never with this level of sustained ferocity.
There have been doubts before, but he has always managed to dispel them with a top-four finish to keep Arsenal’s major shareholders happy and silence all but his most rabid detractors. Yet Arsenal’s pursuit of that trophy-less prize looks flimsy this time, their chances of remaining a Champions League club slight. Wenger knows it and admitted he would have conceded the chase was over if his side had lost on Teesside.
With that in mind, this was an important win, their first three points on the road since January, but in the wider scheme of things, it felt largely pointless because, if Wenger stays, he will still defy rather than quell the rebellion.
A victory over a Middlesbrough team without a league win since before Christmas, will not silence any critics for long. Boro are a club who give the impression relegation will not be a disaster. They are a team under Steve Agnew, given a short-term contract following the departure of Aitor Karanka last month, who have slipped quietly into the drop zone and appear to be heading back to the Championship with a shrug. Arsenal should win games like this.
“It was a committed game we needed to win,” said Wenger. “We need to win every game to have a chance of finishing in the top four and that started tonight. The win will make the team a bit more serene, it will give us a bit more confidence. We had a bit of luck but overall I thought we were more solid defensively. We switched to the back three to cope with a direct game and I think it worked well in the first half. It shows that, even at my age, you can change.”
That could have been perceived as a dig at Ivan Gazidis, the Arsenal chief executive, who said Wenger must be a “catalyst for change” if he is going to stay on, although Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain insisted it was not just the shape of the backline that altered.
“What we’ve done previously has not been good enough,” he said. “We need to take responsibility for that. We had to go back to the basics and it didn’t matter how we won. That’s by making sure the commitment levels were right. Maybe that had been slipping. That was the first thing we needed.”
Arsenal looked like a team who had lost four away games in a row, their worst run of results on the road for 88 years, and although Aaron Ramsey had a shot cleared off the line by Antonio Barragán, they were well contained by their hosts until a moment of brilliance from Alexis Sánchez.
When Adam Clayton clattered into Granit Xhaka on the edge of the area, it was the ideal position for the Chilean to keep goalkeeper Brad Guzan guessing and the American duly stood, studs glued to the turf, as Sánchez curled a free-kick over the wall and beyond him to his right.
Given Boro had failed to score in six out of their last eight games, Arsenal might have cruised towards their first away win since Jan 14, but Boro were level four minutes into the second half.
Sánchez lost the ball to Marten de Roon, who passed it on to Stewart Downing. The former England international advanced, looked up and delivered a cross over the head of Laurent Koscielny, which was stabbed in by Álvaro Negredo.
It lit a fuse and Boro should have taken the lead moments later when Downing benefited from a sliced clearance from Gabriel, but failed to keep his shot down. Arsenal were briefly in disarray and Petr Cech made an excellent save to keep out Daniel Ayala’s header at point-blank range. Agnew’s side needed the win, though. The Ayala miss felt costly and it was as Sánchez chipped a pass to Ramsey, who teed up Mesut Özil to restore Arsenal’s lead.
Ben Gibson had a good chance to snatch an equaliser late on, but the centre-back, who will surely leave his hometown club if they do go down, could not take it.
“I thought the players were amazing in terms of their effort, attitude and commitment,” said Agnew. “We played with an intensity and I couldn’t ask for anymore.
“This is a missed opportunity for us and we realise the size of the task ahead but we are six points behind with a game in hand and a terrific goal difference.”
Middlesbrough 1 Arsenal 2
Good enough from Arsenal, but still far from convincing. Boro gave an honourable account of themselves and, if they only had a man who could kick it in the net with any regularity, would probably be a worthy Premier League side.
In the end, the class of Sanchez with the dead ball, and a clever bit of interplay between Ramsey and Ozil were the difference.
Time on ball (at full time)
Average touch positions (90 + 5 min)
Giroud tries a clever lob from distance but just wide... and that'll do it for this Easter Monday.
Oxlade-Chamberlin given another chance. Boro totally over-committed. Arsenal have five in the break. The Ox again tried to shoot at the near post, again with team-mates.
Poor from the Ox as he gets to the byline and tries to beat the keeper from a ludicrous angle rather than playing it to two better-placed colleagues. Still, a few more seconds eaten up.
Four minutes added. Coquelin's first act is to lose the ball. But Arsenal have it now. Can they see this out?
Double change for the Arsenal, Bellerin and Coquelin on. Sanchez and Ozil come off.
Sanchez brought down, grabs the ball when he is on the floor. The ref, amusingly, gives a freekick against the Chilean stroppy trousers. Said freekick is hoofed in, there's a bit of a scramble, and it's very nearly bundled over the line! Cech grabs gratefully on to it.
Traore again causing havoc with his pace. Wins a corner.
Pretty simple save in the end.
Arsenal have a three-on-three. Sanchez slips it to Giroud, who ought to have done better than whack it over the bar.
Gestede booked. I didn't see why.
Boro having a go, and rightly so. I think with Arsenal's cowardy-custard backs I would have had the powerful Rudy Gestede on a bit earlier. Anyhow, here he is. Martin De Room the fall guy.
Negredo hits a crisp half volley at goal but it is pretty simple for Petr C.
I fancy another goal here. Ox down the right, opens up the now very stretched Boro defence. Ayala's desperate lunge toes it away from Giroud, who would have been clean through.
Time on ball (60 - 75 min)
Arsenal are back in front again - Mesut Özil makes it 1-2.
Touch of class, this. Sanchez chips the ball into the area. Ramsey makes as if to shoot but instead chests the ball into the path of Ozil, who slots it home at the near post.
Traore again, great run into the area.... but seems to freeze. Crowded out by several Arsenal defenders.
Ramirez, who was very bright for the first few minutes, albeit quieter since the interval, comes off. Armand Traore on. Traore is in the game right away, busy, crosses.
Ozil has a crack from range and the crowd give him the bird.
Arsenal showing some fight as Sanchez and Monreal scrap to get the ball off Boro. Arsenal looking dangerous at the moment but Boro are standing firm.
Game has opened up a lot, is exciting now. Sanchez with a brilliant pass, Ozil is onto it. Wonderful goalkeeping from Guzan to JUST nick it off his toes.
And they damn near let in the second. Ball in from Downing, headed back across. Ayala! Must score! He heads it straight at the grateful keeper. Oh, Boro. Was that the moment?
I SAW ARSENAL'S LAST AWAY CLEAN SHEET - t shirts available
Stat: "Arsenal have kept just one clean sheet away from home since January... against non-league Sutton United."
I was at that Sutton match. I should get a t-shirt made
Time on ball (45 - 60 min)
The shot count is similar
Middlesbrough have attempted eight shots so far, compared to five for Arsenal.
Arsenal in their comfort zone at the moment, passing it around prettily, pointlessly, 60 yards from goal. I don't even support them and I want to strangle half the team, so that poor bloke with the two pair headphones from earlier must be having a conniption fit.
— Middlesbrough FC (@Boro) April 17, 2017
Friend with a silly kick into the back of Sanchez's legs. Freekick. Nearly smuggled into the box by Giroud, shades of handball, but Boro clear.
Arsenal are completely terrible. A strictly meat-and-potatoes ball in from the left and, despite Arsenal having several bodies back, they behave like it's a Ronaldo-guided laser missile. Monreal panics and hacks at it, the ball screws a mile up in the air. Downing on the volley! Oh, he cannot get it on target.
1-1: Álvaro Negredo scores the leveller for Middlesbrough.
And it comes from a quite wonderful ball into the area from dear old Stewie Downing, who hares up that right touchline and stabs a perfect cross into the Arsenal area. Koscielny is all over the shop, Negredo nips in, and that's a very handy finish. Up the Boro!!
Boro back in it!
Here's Barragán down the right, some nice skill, and Downing also joins in down that flank. Wins a corner. Useful delivery, a bundle, Ayala I think it was who got the last touch. Goal kick.
Positive start from the hosts, looking to get forward.
Second half ahoy
Can Boro pinch one?
Shane O'Leary writes
It's quite touching and very end of the season, in a Merchant & Ivory sense, that Sanchez is doing nice things for a club he's bound to leave and for the benefit of a man who has, in a very real sense, been gone for some time.
I wonder if QPR will get custody of Walcott?
Half time: Boro 0 Arsenal 1
Rainy night on Teesside, and not a lot of sparkle in the match either. Alexis Sanchez's freekick the difference between the two sides, and the only memorable moment in an otherwise rather drab affair.
Time on ball (first half)
Average touch positions (half time)
Ox gets to the byline, stands up a cross.... Monreal and Sanchez barge each other off the ball.
At the other end, Gabriel is booked for a dangerous high foot that hits Ramirez in the face.
Leadbitter tries the freekick but does not get it above knee height. Oh dear. Straight into the wall.
Arsenal take the lead, and it's Alexis Sánchez with the goal: 0-1.
Brad Guzan did not even move.
That freekick punched out, none of Arsenal's players threatening much with the head. Xhaka, though, is fouled on the edge of the D. Wild tackle from Adam Clayton.
Sanchez steps up....
Arsenal defence unworried so far
Middlesbrough have not been posing a threat in the final third.
De Roon has brought down Oxlade-Chamberlin. Arsenal with a handily placed freekick.
I had a feeling that Arsenal might score early here and then roll Boro over for a confidence boosting pasting. Not come to pass.
This is a very good move from Arsenal, pace and skill down the right, Sanchez into the box, Giroud arriving late. Well covered by Friend.
Imagine if Giroud had the fight of a spartan warrior instead of just the beard.
— James Dodd (@JamesDoddUK) April 17, 2017
Rare chance to get down the other end for Boro. Clayton fighting hard, thinks he deserves a corner but lino says no.
Time on ball (15 - 30 min)
A first attempt at goal for Arsenal, in reply to four from Middlesbrough so far.
Good move from Arsenal. Ox to the byline, beating a man, crosses. Giroud knocks it down. Ramsey with a tough volley, but he hits it into the ground. Corner. Boro cannot clear. Corner from the other side.
Sanchez the next man to have a tricky volley. Cannot get any power. Saved by Guzan.
Boro have a set piece, Clayton knocks it down and Leadbitter has an awful shot from outside the box.
Arsenal have slipped into neutral. Chris Waddle is on the BBC:
"I am not sure Middlesbrough have put four or five passes together. They are doing a job on Arsenal in terms of workrate but on the ball, you have to play."
Boro have the ball in the net, but it's a mile offside. Nice ball in from Ramirez, but De Roon, the 'scorer', is one of three who is clearly off. Arsenal's backline stepped up well there.
Arsenal enjoying plenty of touches of the ball so far
Arsenal have had 177 touches of the ball compared to 87 by Middlesbrough.
Ramirez comes very deep, and loses it. Arsenal now in more or less total command. Boro bunkered in. Their attacking players and their defence are no more than very casual acquaintances.
Good bout of grapplin' in the box as Ozil takes a corner. Ayala giving Giroud a good ole bearhug. One sees penalties for such.
Well, whatever it was, Fabio is coming off. George Friend comes on.
Adama Traore could have been a real handful for Rob Holding on the left side of that back three.
— Matthew Stanger (@MatthewStanger) April 17, 2017
Yes, I should have said more about Holding prior to the match.
Time on ball (0 - 14 min)
Poor wee Fabio is hurt
Not too sure exactly what bit of him is in pain. I mean, he seems to be holding his face but I cannot see what has happened. He challenged for the ball with THE OX but I didn't see any clash. Some sort of knee problem?
Monreal played into a neat one-two but his touch just lets him down.
Enjoyable game so far. Boro having a go.
Fabio with the lollipop on the edge of the area, charges into the box, excellent play. Slips it to Negredo who shoots. But, because he plays for Middlesbrough, it sadly does not go in the goal. Blocked.
Some nice composed defending from Ben Gibson, a young man [Ray Wilkins Voice] who has impressed me every time I have seen him. Tidies up nicely with Giroud menacing, starts an attack. Another good run from Ramirez.
And Anthony Taylor soon has further use for that yellow card, Leadbitter slides in on Ozil, who hops out of the way, more or less. A clear booking, though, under the rules as they stand.
Leadbitter looks to have hurt himself in making that foul.
Oxlade-C is into the book for a late tackle on Fabio. Freekick soon leads to our first shooting opportunity of the night, and Leadbitter is not a million miles away.
An excellent cross from the Ox, Giroud muscles past Ayala and heads at goal. Ref reckons Olivier G fouled him, I am not too sure about that.
It's Boro who show first. Ramirez to the fore, jinky run from him.
Here are Arsenal
Here's how the Boro men line up
Up the Boro, I say. Well, you have to back the underdog, do you not? (Although increasingly that looks like Arsene)
OMG he has TWO pairs of headphones
What an extraordinary person.
Ty from Arsenal Fan TV
Arsenal bringing out the big guns tonight pic.twitter.com/55hKWgKwoF
— Nooruddean (@BeardedGenius) April 17, 2017
Steve Agnew, Championship Manager
"It is obvious to everyone that we have to win. We watched Crystal Palace closely. Arsenal have weaknesses that we hope we can exploit. But Arsenal are a very good team."
— Middlesbrough FC (@Boro) April 17, 2017
So: Arsenal's new defence
A shrewd tactical tweak? Or an admission of failure? What do you reckon, Arsenal fans? Mail me email@example.com if you want to share your views.
And five for Boro
— Middlesbrough FC (@Boro) April 17, 2017
So it's six changes for Arsenal
— Arsenal FC (@Arsenal) April 17, 2017
— Arsenal FC (@Arsenal) April 17, 2017
Team news coming in
And the big news is that Arsenal have made six changes - and are playing three at the back, for the first time since Arsene Wenger's first season here. In so far as anyone can remember. I am happy to stand corrected. Here is the man himself:
"We adapt a little bit and we play with three centre backs. Recently we have lost a lot of direct fights centrally. This should make us stronger in the air.
"We have worked on this with the players, they are prepared.
"We want total commitment for every ball, that will play a bigger part than the system. To play for Arsenal, first you have to give a level of energy."