Arsenal’s run of seven consecutive wins came to an end as they failed to break down a stubborn Middlesbrough side at the Emirates Stadium on Saturday. Against a highly organised outfit, Arsenal keenly felt the absence of the creative midfielder Santi Cazorla. The absence of the smallest man in the Arsenal squad left a huge void in the middle of the park.
This match marked Arsene Wenger’s 67th birthday, but there will not be many celebrations in the Arsenal boss’ household tonight. The point has taken the Gunners to the top of the Premier League table, but a victory for Manchester City against Southampton will knock them off top spot. This was an opportunity for Arsenal to continue their momentum and build a small cushion at the summit of the league. Instead, they slipped up and wasted a golden chance to demonstrate their title credentials.
Arsenal paid the price for their exertions in mid-week—and not just in the form of Cazorla’s injury. Wenger had made only three outfield changes for the match against Ludogorets. He was rewarded with an emphatic 6-0 win, but Arsenal looked physically tired and bereft of ideas against Middlesbrough.
We paid a little price for the Champions League on Wednesday night and usually when you play at home you still would like to manage to win but we couldn’t. We could’ve lost the game as well in the first half, but that’s the modern game you know. If you don’t score early, if you’re not sharp enough, if you’re not creative enough. We lacked a bit of creativity today and then you can have a draw or even lose the game.
Cazorla is certainly one who could have been left out of the Champions League tie. In his stead, Wenger could have started Swiss international Granit Xhaka, who share the Spaniard’s ability to distribute the ball from deep. Instead, he risked Cazorla and he picked up that fateful injury.
The folly of that decision was exacerbated by the fact Xhaka is currently suspended in the Premier League. Arsenal must now wish they had appealed the ban he acquired against Swansea. On Wednesday evening, Arsenal had the luxury of both midfielders at their disposal. By the weekend, they had neither.
Asked on arsenal.com if Arsenal had missed Cazorla, Wenger’s answer was unequivocal: “Yeah, of course. You miss always, of course, Cazorla. At home from deep midfield into the final third, his pass is always quick and accurate.”
Cazorla was exactly the kind of player Arsenal needed to unlock a seemingly impenetrable Middlesbrough defence. In his absence, Wenger picked the pair of Francis Coquelin and Mohamed Elneny. Both are energetic runners and efficient passes, but neither has the vision that makes Cazorla so special. He can see passes few others can. Faced with the massed ranks of the Middlesbrough defence, his brilliant brain might have been able to spot a way through.
Arsenal had other creative players in the side, such as Mesut Ozil. However, the German was rarely able to get on the ball in dangerous areas. Cazorla is typically stationed deeper and one of his key responsibilities is to try to find Ozil early before the opposition defence has time to crowd him out.
The Gunners’ midfield was not at its best today, but in Cazorla, Xhaka and Aaron Ramsey they were missing three top players. Elneny and Coquelin are solid without being spectacular, and they’re better suited to a defensive game than one where Arsenal are forced to try to break down a compact defence.
Nevertheless, it’s impossible to pin Arsenal’s failure to win the game on the absence of one man. Wenger was also asked on arsenal.com if the Gunners suffered for having to play without French forward Olivier Giroud:
Look, we didn’t make enough from our set-pieces today and from our crosses, so of course the first thing that comes to mind is a guy with a bit more size in the box and more physical presence could have helped, yes. But we’ve just come out of six straight wins you know and we still would not like to jump on this kind of excuse.
We have to deal with what we face and unfortunately we are used to scoring, we are an offensive team. We have five or six offensive players on the pitch in the end, we didn’t manage to score so it’s a bit frustrating but it’s part of the Premier League. You know, the other day Man City had a similar possession against Everton and didn’t win. We have to find a way to be efficient even when the games are like that.
Giroud’s power and aerial ability would certainly have been helpful at certain stages of the game. All too often they slung high crosses into the box, only to see Alexis Sanchez and Theo Walcott unsurprisingly beaten to the ball by defenders that towered over them.
Wenger will be left feeling frustrated by his team’s attacking inadequacy, but also relieved that the performance of Petr Cech ensured they did not suffer a disastrous defeat. Middlesbrough deserve credit for balancing their defensive set-up with some impressive counter-attacks, and Cech was called upon to make a number of crucial saves. Had Middlesbrough been more efficient in the final third, this could have been a painfully embarrassing day for Arsenal.
Perhaps in the past Arsenal would have lost this game. However, there’s a growing maturity about this Gunners side, and even when they were chasing the win in the game’s final stages they retained enough vigilance to ensure they still came away with a point. Wenger will know the only solution to their disappointment is to put things right with a win at Sunderland next weekend.
If they are to manage that, they may need Cazorla back in their squad—the Middlesbrough match showed that Arsenal just aren’t the same team without him.