By Richard Clarke
Arsenal suffered their first Premier League defeat of the season when they went down 2-1 at Middlesbrough on Sunday.
Arsène Wenger's side were trailing after only three minutes when Kolo Toure was adjudged to have brought down Jeremie Aliadiere and Stewart Downing scored from the spot. The points were sealed 17 minutes from time when Tuncay squeezed in a shot at the near post after Manuel Almunia had saved from Gary O'Neil. Tomas Rosicky's goal with the final kick of the match mattered little as the visitors were well-beaten on the day.
The previous evening, Liverpool had lost their unbeaten Premier League record in surprising fashion at Reading. Few suspected that Arsenal, the last team not to have tasted defeat, would follow suit at Gareth Southgate's struggling side. The visitors were unbeaten in domestic football for over eight months.
However, this was one of those rare occasions when Wenger's men never found their feet and never truly threatened the opposing goal. Middlesbrough were more urgent and more enterprising. They deserved their three points.
Still, a glance at the Premier League table remains an uplifting one for any Arsenal fan. They are still top, albeit now by only one point.
This was a defeat, not a disaster. The key now is to move on.
Wenger made only one change in his entire 16 for this quickfire return to the North-East. Philippe Senderos replaced Alex Song on the bench. Otherwise the two new partnerships forged at St James' Park in midweek were retained - Gilberto and Lassana Diarra in central midfield, Eduardo and Emmanuel Adebayor up front.
Middlesbrough came into this game in the relegation zone while Arsenal were looking to restore their lead in the Premier League to four points. On paper it seemed a straight-forward task for Wenger's men however it was worth remembering this was the fourth in a quartet of draining away trips over the course of the last 12 days. They were also lacking Cesc Fabregas (hamstring), Alex Hleb (Achilles), Abou Diaby (back), Mathieu Flamini (thigh) and Robin van Persie (knee). It would not be easy.
That was illustrated in the starkest terms after three minutes when Aliadiere was sent sprinting through with Toure in pursuit. Despite the fact the Frenchman's run was angled across goal Manuel Almunia elected to come out to meet the ball. But before he had got there, Toure's stretched out a leg and clipped the former Arsenal striker. His old side bitterly disputed the penalty decision from referee Howard Webb but Downing stepped up to drive the ball past Almunia.
Before the game, Wenger had said Middlesbrough's performances had been better than their results. With the confidence of a surprise lead, they set about making up for lost time.
Aliadiere worried Gallas into turning a weak clearance into the path of Tuncay but the French defender recovered to charge down his shot.
In the 18th minute only Toure's flicked header stopped O'Neil's drifting cross reaching the lurking Aliadiere at the far post.
To this point Middlesbrough were the better side. When Rosicky registered a weak shot across the face of goal in the 22nd minute it represented the visitors' first genuine effort on goal. And even then rookie keeper Ross Turnbull was hardly worried.
Unusually Arsenal were looking to hit the ball long. But just past the half-hour, they started the stir.
Toure's free-kick was charged down and a minute later, as the visitors sustained pressure for the first time in the game, the Ivorian found himself with no support on the left flank. He decided to foray forward on his own. He exchanged passes with Adebayor on the edge of the area but was flagged offside as he bundled through.
In the 34th minute, Arsenal created their first clear chance. Eboue hoisted a free-kick to the far post and Adebayor, as he had in scoring at Aston Villa, climbed high above the home defence. His header was powerful and directed downwards however it only flicked the sidenetting.
It seemed Arsenal were starting to turn the screw. However Middlesbrough rallied just before the break. Tuncay escaped to the right-hand byline but Almunia cut out his low cross. Seconds later the Turkish international hacked an effort horribly wide.
Nicklas Bendtner replaced Eduardo at the interval. It was an understandable move as the Croatian had struggled to make an impression.
However, early on, there was little difference in the balance of play. Within a couple of minutes, Aliadiere sent Tuncay clear with a cute angled ball through. He effort beat Almunia but his shot trickled past the post. A major miss.
Then, after Toure was harshly booked for hauling down Aliadiere, David Wheater hammered a drive goalwards from the edge of the area. Fortunately for Arsenal it hit the iron-plated chest of Toure.
On the hour, a flowing Middlesbrough move ended with George Boateng thumping a rasping effort just wide. Immediately, Wenger threw on Theo Walcott for Eboue and Denilson for Diarra. The sweeping changes were an indication of his concern.
Arsenal did respond but they could not force a decent save from Turnbull. It has been the story of the game for them.
With 17th minutes left, Middlesbrough got their second. O'Neil met a corner with a low drive through a crowded area, Almunia dived low to his left to push the ball aside. It seemed safe but Tuncay pounced and arrowed his shot high into the net at the near post.
It sucked the life out of Arsenal. Rosicky drove past Turnbull deep into injury-time but, by then, the points had long since gone.
- Toure Yellow Card
- Clichy Yellow Card
- Eboue 60
- Rosicky Goal!
- Diarra 60
- Eduardo 45
- Denilson 60
- Walcott 60
- Bendtner 45
- Woodgate 73
- O'Neil Yellow Card
- Downing Goal!
- Rochemback Yellow Card
- Aliadiere 81
- Sanli 90 Goal!
- Arca 81
- Huth 73
- Johnson 90