It’s been a frustrating campaign, and things have become real eventful over the last two months or so. Having lost four straight away fixtures, you could just sense that a visit to Middlesbrough was a perfect opportunity for Arsenal to slip up, again. At this point, I’m not very confident heading into any match, maybe apart from non-league sides like Sutton or Lincoln, but seriously, every match has become a test for the Gunners.
After looking through Middlesbrough’s results this season, I couldn’t help but notice that they had not won a Premier League fixture since December, when they defeated Swansea 3-0 at Riverside Stadium. For me, that wasn’t very assuring. The only scenario I could play out in my head was that Arsene Wenger would lead his men in to Riverside Stadium, and on the way out, they’d once again be the laughing stock of everyone in England, including some Arsenal supporters.
With Monday being a holiday in Massachusetts (Patriots Day), it was already a festive morning and afternoon. The Boston Marathon runs a stones throw away from our place, the Red Sox won the annual Patriots Day game, and then I had an Arsenal match to look forward to.
Prior to the starting XI having been announced, I think it’s safe to say that not many people would have expected what they saw.
Arsene Wenger threw a curve ball at everyone with a 3-4- formation. My first reaction was – Surely they’ve just messed up on the graphic? According to reports, the last time Arsenal began a match in a 3-4-3 was back in 1997. Arsene Wenger should have hash tagged the starting XI with #ThrowBackMonday.
Was I surprised? Absolutely, but it was a pleasant surprise.
It was good to see Arsene Wenger thinking outside the box. I wasn’t sure it would work, but, at least for one moment, he opened up that crusty cardboard box, stepped outside of it and put it in the backroom. You’ve been very good to me, but I think it’s time that we go our separate ways, and that’s exactly what he did at the Riverside.
Rob Holding in the starting XI was nice to see, and boy did the young England international put in a performance. There were a few moments in the match where he was put in a tough spot, but reacted like a seasoned veteran. One specific moment was in the first half when Oxlade-Chamberlain played a pass across the wet pitch with the outside of his foot, putting Holding under serious pressure. Fear not, the youngster took a smooth touch to his right and played a quick pass out to the left. At that point, any uncertainties I may have had about him were quickly put to rest. This kid has all the tools to be a top defender, and hopefully an Arsenal legend.
Another performance which caught my eye was that of Oxlade-Chamberlain.
Playing in that wingback position was something new for him, but he embraced it and did it well. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t concerned when he got that early yellow card, but I think the fact that he was playing well kept him confident and focused enough to avoid a second.
The icing on the cake for me was the reaction of the players after the final whistle.
Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil had been replaced, but they quickly walked onto the pitch, and both had a smile on their face. This isn’t generally something we’ve seen throughout the season. Normally Ozil may go thank the fans, as will Alexis if he’s not tossing his gloves on the pitch and running into the dressing room.
In all seriousness, the formation was already a big enough shock, seeing the togetherness and I’d say relief of the players after the final whistle was pleasant to see.
Sure, they defeated lowly Middlesbrough who is destined for relegation, but the squad has looked disconnected from each other for months. Everyone seems to be doing their own thing, there seems to be no belief or confidence in each other, and that’s been very obvious from the performances and results.
As if that wasn’t enough, Ox’s interview after the match was like music to my ears.
His humble and honest comments about the performances and results were brilliant. He acknowledged that the fans continued to stick by the club although they’ve essentially been sh*t. There was mention that after the defeat against Palace, the players got together during the week to discuss things, and although the performance wasn’t eye catching at the Riverside, they all looked determined and hungry for the three points.
There were a few defensive moments which had me on the edge of my seat, but with a new formation, that was expected.
I’m not sure Arsene Wenger will be bold enough to deploy the same strategy against City for the FA Cup fixture on Sunday, but if he does, he could be playing with fire. If it works, he’ll be walking around with a little hop in his step. Going out of the competition will bring more pressure on him and the board, and there will be questions asked on why he took the gamble. So essentially, he’s going to be questioned either way.
One can only hope that Monday’s victory will unite the squad and at least give them some confidence for the final stretch of the season. There’s still a top 4 spot up for grabs, and there is still an opportunity for some FA Cup silverware.
Happy Sanchez means happy supporters, which hopefully means positive results. Keep on smiling Alexis, it means things are going well!