Arsenal 2 – 0 Middlesbrough
1 – 0 Giroud (27)
2 – 0 Giroud (29)
Arsenal vindicated Arsène’s decision to field a strong XI against Middlesbrough with a comfortable victory, the two-goal margin of victory only disappointing because the performance and effort deserved more. It wasn’t through lack of trying; Tomas Mejias in the Middlesbrough goal played well, making great stops from pretty much the whole of Arsenal midfield and attack.
Post-match, Middlesbrough manager Aitor Karanka lamented his sides’ performance. They hadn’t, he believed, done themselves justice and lacked the intensity which underpinned their victory at Manchester City in the previous round.
The Spaniard misses the point or chooses to ignore it; Arsenal did not let their opponents settle. Straight from the kick-off, the passing was crisp and precise, the movement sharp and quick. Middlesbrough most likely, have never faced a side in this form. It was the epitome of the short passing game, an idealised version of the style Arsène wanted but could never be produced consistently enough over the years.
It was the stand-out performance of the season so far, Santi Cazorla picked up the baton and conducted a symphony of football. Mesut Özil rightfully gained praise for his part, a virtuoso performance indeed, but it was the Spaniard whose vision freed the German’s spirit.
The opening goal encapsulated all that was good about Arsenal’s performance. All eleven players were involved in the move (Opta tweeted the graphic on the right yesterday to illustrate the point – click on it to enlarge) with ‘Boro barely sniffing the ball until Mejias picked the ball out of the net. A slight exaggeration, I know; it was, I think, the strongest contender for Goal of the Season so far.
If the first put the lid on the coffin of Middlesbrough’s FA Cup dreams, Olivier Giroud’s quick-fire second nailed it shut. The visitors were slow to react and the French international showed outstanding technique under pressure to guide his volley past Mejias.
Speaking to the press afterwards, Arsène was quick to praise Giroud, highlighting his improvement as a player since joining Arsenal. The striker has his critics, some of that is relevant, some not so; it’s the same as anyone else receives. He is a good centre forward, a traditional leader of the line reminiscent of Alan Smith.
Yes, he could stay on his feet more often but since returning to the side, it seems the injury he suffered at Goodison Park has played on his mind. Certainly his dismissal against QPR was as a result of that. Whilst his body has healed, his mind will take longer and to a certain extent that should be expected.
But yesterday showed that little bit extra he has developed in his game; his control is better than normally associated with the target man whilst he linked well with Cazorla, Özil and Welbeck to create space for others. Arsenal enjoyed a lot of dangerous possession down the left in the first half with Kieran Gibbs playing as an auxiliary forward for most of the opening forty-five minutes, making the most of the opportunities the visitors afforded him.
That Arsenal were so dominant, perversely makes it harder for players to push claims to usurp the incumbents of the starting line-up place. It would, for example, be harsh on Nacho Monreal to make way for Gibbs on the basis of this performance. However, knowing that the ‘understudies’ are hitting form and can seamlessly slip into the side ensures that the rest of the squad knows they have to perform at a high level consistently to keep their place in the side and that is no bad thing.
At the back, Arsenal were not tested particularly which afforded Gabriel a relatively straightforward debut. He picked up the obligatory booking but dealt with the visitors attacks in an unfussy manner, using the ball well and keeping it simple to retain possession.
Arsène praised the Brazilian post-match, underlining that nerves played a part in constraining Gabriel’s performance. We didn’t need a flamboyant centre back yesterday or anything spectacular – do you ever in that role? What we saw was a player determined not to make a mistake and willing to put the team first with a cynical block that earned his caution. It’s a hint of the ‘dark arts’ which Arsenal have been reluctant to employ in the past.
Perhaps it was the absence of the third goal which caused Arsène to observe that “if [Middlesbrough] had come back to 2-1 I think we would have struggled a little bit.” It’s a curious statement, perhaps overly generous in praise for the visitors but hinting at a fragility in confidence in the squad.
There shouldn’t have been. Arsenal played with less intensity in the second half, content to pick off their opponents on the counter. To me, there was always a feeling that Arsenal could have upped the ante and gone up a gear if ‘Boro had scored.
Perhaps Wenger’s concern reflects the profligacy Arsenal showed in front of goal, Walcott might have scored a couple whilst Gibbs, Özil and Cazorla were all denied in their pursuit of glory. You sensed that a third would have opened the floodgates and there could have been few complaints had that been the case. Arsenal were that dominant.
All in all, there can be few, if any complaints. It was a good performance and a clean sheet. In a knockout competition, that’s all you can ask for. We wait to see if the football gods deliver another kind draw in the last eight.