MIDDLESBROUGH, England — Three thoughts from Arsenal’s 2-1 win vs. Middlesbrough in the Premier League.
1. Ozil delivers but should he start at Wembley?
Mesut Ozil was overdue a big contribution in an Arsenal shirt and he finally delivered with the winning goal in his side’s 2-1 victory at Middlesbrough.
The German midfielder was serenaded by the 2,955 travelling Arsenal supporters for the remainder of the game after his 71st-minute strike, but his decisive goal should not mask the reality of his performance at the Riverside Stadium.
For lengthy periods of this encounter, Ozil was a passenger, spending more time running away from the ball than looking for it, but he at least came up with the goods when it mattered.
When Arsenal are up against it, though, as they were for periods of this game, Ozil is a luxury that Arsene Wenger’s team simply cannot afford to accommodate. So against Manchester City in the FA Cup semifinal on Sunday, can they really risk the former Real Madrid player against a team that will pose far greater problems than relegation-threatened Boro?
Ozil is unquestionably a fine footballer, but his work rate falls short of the required levels far too often and it seems an age since he was a key figure in Germany’s 4-1 destruction of England at the 2010 World Cup.
Those kinds of unstoppable-force performances have been few and far between for Arsenal, certainly over the past season and a half. Still, his match-winner against Boro might prove to be a turning point, both for him and his team.
The visitors were forced to weather a storm after Alvaro Negredo cancelled out Alexis Sanchez’s first-half free kick and the home side twice went close to scoring a second. But Ozil delivered the decisive goal to end Arsenal’s dismal recent away run and give himself a morale boost.
2. Wenger goes with three at the back
Arsene Wenger’s decision to play with three at the back marked the first time the Arsenal manager had deployed such a defensive alignment since May 1997, so it was nothing if not a bold move. However, the club’s defensive problems are long-standing and require better players to eradicate them, rather than a late-season gamble on a system unused for 20 years.
The main challenge with the formation is that it requires at least one top-class defender to organise and make it work as a system. Arsenal do not possess such a player, or anyone who could remotely come close to that description, but they do have a collection of players who struggle to take responsibility when defending and that was evident at the Riverside.
While the central three of Gabriel, Laurent Koscielny and Rob Holding looked solid enough during the first half, the lack of cover down the flanks gave the home side repeated opportunities to deliver dangerous crosses.
That flaw continued in the second period, with the hapless Nacho Monreal struggling desperately to patrol the left side and it was from this area of the pitch that Stewart Downing crossed for Alvaro Negredo to equalise on 50 minutes. The close-range volley came after Koscielny had bizarrely attempted to clear with a scissor-kick inside his own six-yard box.
The introduction by Boro of pacy winger Adama Traore midway through the second half only added to the visitors’ problems down their left side.
3. Boro have plenty of effort, not enough quality
Middlesbrough are high on work rate but low on quality, which is a dangerous combination for any team marooned in the Premier League relegation zone.
With a game in hand on fourth-bottom Hull and 20th-placed Sunderland due to visit the Riverside next week, Boro still have a glimmer of hope of avoiding the drop, but they need to be more adventurous over the final month of the season if they are to do so.
Negredo is a proven goalscorer at Premier League level and a striker capable of winning games if Boro can keep it tight enough at the back. Meanwhile, in Traore they possess a winger with blistering pace and the ability to trouble even the best defenders.
Traore can be rash and loose in possession, which is why he started this game on the bench, but Boro are running out of chances and interim manager Steve Agnew needs to throw caution to the wind by putting him into the starting line-up.
Mark Ogden is a senior football writer for ESPN FC. Follow him @MarkOgden_