By Declan Taylor
When Arsenal travelled to a cloudy Riverside Stadium in December, inconsistency had blighted both sides’ early-season form.
The Gunners had suffered five defeats in their opening 14 matches while Boro’s inability to find the net on a regular basis had left them only five points above the relegation zone.
Gareth Southgate’s side have only scored 25 Premier League this goals this season and their consistently inconsistent form has plunged them even deeper into the mire. Arsenal, on the other hand, are unbeaten in 19.
So is a walkover in the offing? Perhaps not. Southgate has never lost against Arsène Wenger in his management career.
Ahead of Sunday’s clash, we caught up Eric Paylor of the Middlesbrough Evening Gazette for a local perspective of Boro. Read on for his opinion on the lack of goals, fighting relegation and the role of one particular ex-Gunner.
THE STORY SO FAR
“The main problem they’ve had all season is scoring goals. They’ve scored 25 this season and it’s just not enough. They are by far the worst scorers in the Premier League and they’re paying the price for it. You could argue that football-wise they’re nothing like a relegation threatened side. They do have some quality around the park, they knock the ball around well, and they do create chances. Unfortunately they can’t put the ball in the net enough.
“Their predicament is purely down to not taking chances. They are a good, quick-breaking side – very much in the Arsenal mould. Obviously Arsenal fans will remember Jeremie Aliadiere who is still pacy and effective in that role. They are very good at breaking and they do create good chances but they just don’t take them. There are people capable of putting the ball in the back of the net but when you think that the joint-top scorers are Alfonso Alves and Tuncay with seven it’s really just not good enough.”
MAN OF THE MOMENT
“Jeremie [Aliadiere] was given the wider role at the start of this season, that’s where he has played most. He did ironically play upfront against the Gunners in December and scored with that stunning header. Generally, in terms of trying to fit everyone into the team, Gareth seems to prefer him wide right where he can use his pace, get crosses in and support attacks. He has certainly had a workman-like season but I wouldn’t say he was one of the team’s most effective players.”
CAUSE FOR CONCERN
“Alfonso Alves finished last season quite strongly and if you had interviewed every Middlesbrough fan virtually all of them would’ve said that he would score 15 or more goals this season. Unfortunately he has rarely threatened to get anywhere near that tally and to be absolutely honest I don’t remember a striker that I’ve seen played who has missed so many clear-cut chances. I’m not quite sure he’s a natural finisher and when he does put the ball away he tends to produce stunning shots. But he isn’t a six-yard sniffer and if they had one this season they would’ve scored more goals.”
REASONS TO BE CHEERFUL
“Everyone’s surprisingly confident and positive of avoiding the drop. It’s a good thing to see but of course it has to be translated into points. They have just played back-to-back home games against Hull and Fulham, beat Hull 3-1 and then outplayed Fulham but couldn’t score in the goalless draw. It’s almost summed up the story of the season. But they are playing well, doing everything they can to get out, and I believe they’ll run out at Arsenal with a spring in their step. The general belief is they’ll need to win three of their last five games to stay up. I think that’s a tall order but you never know.”
THE ONE TO WATCH
“You could argue that Tuncay's tally isn’t too bad given he was signed as an attacking midfield player – it’s where he plays for Turkey. They have tried playing him as an orthodox striker quite a lot and he does get the odd goal but I do believe he’s better playing behind his own strikeforce, he seems more natural in that role. He has actually played the last two games as a very orthodox central midfield player and has been outstanding.”
“Marlon King has settled in very well. I think the place took to him straight away, he’s a positive, confident character and of course he’s been around a while. Maybe hasn’t played as much Premier League football as he would have liked over the years but he has been prolific – certainly in the Championship. He wants to succeed in the top flight so you’ll find he runs himself into the ground. Hopefully, if he can get a goal or two before the end of the season, Boro might see him as a good investment for next season.”
THE MAN IN CHARGE
“The support for Southgate is not waning at all and you could almost say it’s surprising the way the fans have got behind the manager all season. The thing about Gareth is he’s such a nice guy, he says the right things and the fans here want him to succeed. They have never really criticised him at all which is probably unusual for the manager of a team that is fighting relegation. He still has the backing of the fans and they got 30,000 plus crowds for Hull and Fulham – good going for the mid-season. The fans have rallied around and we’ve been running a ‘Keep the Faith’ campaign and the supporters have been terrific. Everybody is not only behind the team but the manager as well.”
PLAYER OF THE SEASON
“I must say it has alternated. There has been quite a debate about it because you could go through the whole season and nobody has been particularly consistent. But in the Evening Gazette’s ‘Star Ratings’, Stewart Downing is top. He was in and out a bit at the start of the season but he has been firing on all cylinders since then. I think it’s fair to say he is the player of the season although Tuncay is pushing him close.”
“They won’t go gung-ho and very few teams go to the Emirates and do so. They do play football and they like that opportunity to do so - this is one of them. I think they’ll enjoy the occasion as they have on their two previous visits. I think there will be a lot of emphasis on defensive work and I wouldn’t expect to see the side with as many attackers as against Hull or Fulham. They have got Gary O’Neil back from suspension, Didier Digard – a tough-tackling midfielder – could figure. Boro will go to have strength in the right areas but the footballers will still be in the team and they’ll be looking to create.”