The distinct flavour of last season hung over the Emirates yesterday as Arsenal toiled to a draw against Middlesbrough.
That acrid taste of frustration that stuck in many a craw in 2015/16 was back like a frankfurter that won’t stop repeating on you as the Gunners produced a sluggish display that really lacked the gusto of the last six weeks.
It was strange to watch as the same old problems – the problems I thought we had banished – bubble up to the surface again; the constant square passing, the slow build-up play, the unwillingness to try something different.
More than 700 passes and in excess of 75 per cent possession – and yet still we couldn’t find a way through as we played our game largely in front of two banks of obdurate defenders. It was meat and drink for a group of players whose one goal was to stop us from scoring. It was exactly how Boro would have wanted it to play out – there were no surprises and nothing different for them to consider.
It’s clear that Middlesbrough turned up with one idea in mind and, credit to them, they carried out their spoiler job in an incredibly successful manner. It’s the kind of football that should be banned, but I won’t deny it was effective and efficient in earning the Teeside club a point.
In fairness to them, they forced Petr Cech into some excellent saves too, as Arsenal again struggled to cope with direct running from deep – much as they did against Swansea.
I was among the many who were surprised to hear Arsene Wenger opted to field Mohammed Elneny alongside Francis Coquelin in midfield, simply because the two of them are very much the same type of player – defensively minded, disciplined, and keen to offload the ball after collecting it from defence.
There was a feeling that the way the team was set up lacked creative spark in the middle of the pitch, and you could argue that is exactly what came to pass.
It’s impossible to say that, had Santi Cazorla had been fit, we would have won the game, but you get the impression the team was hampered by fielding two defensive midfielders in the centre of the park, guys whose primary job is to win the ball back and then offload.
Had Granit Xhaka have been available, I’m sure the Swiss would have started the match alongside Coquelin, but I have to say I’m surprised we didn’t see Alex Oxlade Chamberlain given a run out in the centre of the park. I think he would have been a lot more direct with his running and passing – more penetrative too.
But, even with Coquelin and Elneny, we should have had enough to get past Boro – they’re not a side full of world beaters. I accept that teams set up differently when they come to Arsenal, in the hope that they can obfuscate and frustrate enough to put us off our game, but that’s nothing new.
It was a regular staple of last season and, even this year, we have seen teams try the same. Most recently, Burnley attempted to bat for the draw from half-time onwards but, even then, we looked a darn sight more dangerous than we did against Boro.
I don’t buy the argument that we missed Olivier Giroud. I don’t believe it was aerial prowess we were lacking, or enough crosses into the box, it was the speed and directness of our play that was diminished – partly by Boro sitting on their 18 yard line, and partly by our own torpor.
But look, it certainly wasn’t the worst result in the world. We have to be realistic. We came into the game on the back of a six-match winning streak and those just can’t last forever. At some point, we were going to draw or lose a match. It’s a shame that it had to be against a team as poor and one-dimensional as Middlesbrough, but it had to happen some time.
Add to that a clean sheet and a point and it takes the edge off the outcome just a little.
What’s important now is that we get back to winning ways in midweek in the league cup as Reading come to town. It’s a chance to give some tired players a rest and a chance for some peripheral players to get back to business.
Nothing breeds success like momentum and ours took a bit of a knock on Saturday. A good performance and a win on Tuesday will, hopefully, launch as into Saturday’s trip to ailing Sunderland. Let’s swap the foul repetition of the Middlesbrough frankfurter with the digestive comfort of back-to-back wins.