Arsenal returned to winning ways on the road in the Premier League their first since January, but they were made to work for it as goals from Alexis Sánchez and Mesut Özil gave them a narrow 2-1 victory over a tough Middlesbrough side.
It was a slow start to things at the Riverside Stadium from both sides, with half chances for Oliver Giroud and Grant Leadbitter and Martin de Roon’s offside header. Arsène Wenger’s side began to dominate as the half went on, and it was Sánchez who made the difference at the break with Arsenal’s 3000th Premier League away goal.
Boro equalised right at the start of the second period through Álvaro Negredo, and continued to push with chances for Stewart Downing and Daniel Ayala. It was shaping up to be another miserable night away from North London for the Gunners, but Özil's strike gave them all three points but sent Steve Agnew's men closer to the drop.
Testing the waters early on
Wenger surprised many before a ball had even been kicked, with the Frenchman opting for a 3-4-3 formation. Young defender Rob Holding was drafted in for his first league appearance since the end of August, but it was a slow start to the proceedings on Teesside.
Özil and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain combined well in the second minute, with the latter managing to find the head of Giroud. The Frenchman managed to get his header off and produce a decent save from Brad Guzan, but referee Anthony Taylor had already blown up for a tussle in the area.
Boro looked to reply instantaneously with what was an audacious effort. It was laid on a plate to skipper Leadbitter some distance from goal, he hit it well but it was always going wide of Petr Čech’s post.
The majority of the Riverside thought their side had found the lead just before the quarter-hour mark, as Antonio Barragán's free-kick was well collected by Gastón Ramírez. The Uruguayan put it back across the box and it was easy enough for de Roon to nod past Čech, but the flag was already raised high on the near side.
Gunners cranking up the heat
Going away from the Emirates Stadium has proven a nightmare for Arsenal in the past weeks and months, having been beaten by three goals in their last four away league matches but were beginning to build up the pressure on Steve Agnew’s men as the half went on.
Oxlade-Chamberlain was causing havoc with his pace as he did brilliantly to get to the by-line, his cross causes Aaron Ramsey to improvise with a makeshift scissor-kick but Barragán had to clear on-the-line to keep the score’s level.
Sánchez almost gets his chance from the resulting corner, as it is headed on by Holding to the back post where the Chilean is waiting. He kept his eyes on it all the way, but as it snagged the turf it lost its power and it was easy enough for Guzan to collect.
Striking at the right time
A goal for the away side did seem imminent, and it couldn’t have come in much better style with four normal first-half minutes to play. Sánchez set the ball just around of the edge of the D of Guzan’s area, the American was punished for the gap he left as the Chilean curled his 13th away goal of the season into the far corner much to the delight of the traveling contingent.
The instructions of Agnew will have been ringing in the ears of the Middlesbrough players as they came out for the second period, and they proved dividends as they equalised five minutes after the restart.
Coming back with an instant reply
It was a great counter-attack from the home side led by the veteran Downing, it was the same right-hand wing that Oxlade-Chamberlain had caused havoc on in the first period and this time it worked in favour of the home side.
Downing’s cross looked to have bamboozled Laurent Koscielny as he flayed his leg into the air, but Negredo remained composed just behind the Frenchman to stab it past Čech.
The provider nearly turned goal scorer minutes later, as George Friend’s cross into the area looked to have come to nothing. However, the flick from Holding looked to have fell perfectly for Downing but he shanked the effort over the crossbar.
Agnew will be scratching his head to how his side wasn’t ahead on the hour mark, with Cech producing a great save to keep his side in the contest. The chance looked to have gone with Downing’s wayward free-kick missing the back post, but Friend came rushing in on the by-line to head it back into the mixer. That is where Ayala was waiting as he nodded it towards goal, but Cech did brilliantly to stop it on the goal line.
Wenger’s men had hardly been in the half up to that point, but had a good chance to regain their lead after wavering the Boro storm. Sánchez did well with his pass to take it beyond the reach of Ben Gibson and into the feet of Özil, but Guzan was quick off his line to intercept with the deflection off his legs seeing it away.
Leading against the run of play
As time went on and pressure continued to grow there was concern growing in the Arsenal ranks, but seemingly against the run of play the Gunners regained their lead.
It was good play from Wenger’s men with the move started by the goal scorer Sánchez , who floated the ball into the area looking for Ramsey. It was good from Welshman as he took the power out of it with his chest down, and it made easy enough for Özil to hammer it home at the near post.
Agnew's side continued to push forward as the minutes ticked down as the desperatley tried for a positive result to help in their semmingly decreasing survival battle. It was a good ball in from Downing in the 86th minute which was chested down Gabriel, Gibson tried with all his might to get a miminal touch to it but Cech collected.
The final chance of the night fell to Arsenal in extra-time, as Oxlade-Chamberlain turned on the boosters as he beared down on goal but despite some celebrations from the travelling supporters it only nestled the side-netting.