Sometimes, everyone knows it’s over except you. It’s a painful position to be in, the truth plain to all but the protagonist of it. He struggles on and on in some unjustifiable hope that things might be salvageable after all.
He might even switch from his formation of two decades and flip to a three-man back line in some fit of desperation. And maybe Arsenal’s labored 2-1 away win over Middlesbrough will have given embattled Gunners manager Arsene Wenger some more false confidence that things are actually going to turn around.
Arsenal may have won for just a third time in nine league games – a decrepit run that has included a staggering five losses, four of which were by at least two goals – but had a few bounces landed differently, it might well have lost yet again.
As far as Premier League teams go, Middlesbrough isn’t a very good one. In 19th place and in languid form, it’s all but a lock for relegation. Going into the game, the home side had scored a league-low 22 goals from 32 games. (Although, remarkably, only four teams had conceded fewer goals.) Still, it took a yeoman’s effort from Arsenal, newly fielding a three-man defense, to claim all three points and lift themselves back into sixth place in the Premier League.
Alexis Sanchez, of course, got the go-ahead goal. Alvaro Negredo equalized for ‘Boro just after halftime. And Mesut Ozil got the winner.
Yet it took Arsenal almost half an hour to record a shot. And ‘Boro’s Marten de Roon had a goal disallowed before that. While Olivier Giroud was denied a credible appeal for a penalty off a corner, Arsenal didn’t really make its presence known until its first goal, in the 42nd minute.
Alexis swung a free kick over the wall and under Brad Guzan’s crossbar. The American stood rooted to the ground, even though it was hardly an impossible save.
But even a Middlesbrough team that hadn’t won in 14 league games – now 15, a run going back to Dec. 17 – proved a tricky opponent to Arsenal. And in the 50th minute, Stewart Downing cut inside from the flank on a break and sent in a cross that sailed just over Laurent Koscielny’s boot and onto that of Alvaro Negredo, who stabbed it past goalkeeper Peter Cech.
‘Boro then had the next two major chances. A botched Nacho Monreal clearance fell for Downing, who hammered his half-volley just over. And on the hour, the home side almost scrambled in a goal from a corner before it was cleared off the line.
Alexis, whose every wish Arsenal has inexplicably not yet acquiesced in order to extend his contract and get him to stay, restored order. In the 71st minute, he dumped in a cross, which was chested down by Aaron Ramsey. Ozil’s low shot beat Guzan to his near post.
The hard-earned three points nominally kept Arsenal in the race for fourth place. The Gunners trail Manchester City by seven points with a game in hand. But they also lag three points behind fifth-place Manchester United, which will have the benefit of facing City head-to-head next week.
Whether or not Arsenal reaches the Champions League is, of course, seen by many as the deciding factor in whether Wenger will get to stay in North London when his contract expires this summer. But even if he does get back into the elite continental tournament, limp performances such as Monday’s suggest this broken team won’t be fixed by such a placebo cure.
And everyone seems to know it but Wenger himself.
xG map for Middlesbrough – Arsenal. The Gunners escape with a win, but man they were not good. pic.twitter.com/EC3U1RjAr6
— Caley Graphics (@Caley_graphics) April 17, 2017
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a soccer columnist for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.