By Declan Taylor
Consistency has been the buzz word at Emirates Stadium this season and the same can be said of the Riverside.
A smattering of impressive Middlesbrough results are surrounded by twice as many ordinary ones, leaving Gareth Southgate's side hovering just five points above the drop zone.
Like Arsenal, Boro's slick one-touch football and searing counter-attacking pace has caught the eye, while a penchant for conceding late goals has undone a lot of hard work in the red-and-white ranks.
Ahead of the clash we spoke to Eric Paylor of the Middlesbrough Evening Gazette about Southgate's inexperienced yet talented squad, the ex-Gunners on Teesside and being consistently inconsistent.
THE STORY SO FAR
“They have blown hot and cold this season and struggled for consistency. I know it is typical of a lot of other Premier League clubs but they can certainly see a lot of points that have gone begging. The danger is that the current run of poor results affects morale. They should’ve had a lot more points recently and they are susceptible to conceding late goals which has cost them a lot of points.
“I think one of the problems is that everybody in the league is blowing hot and cold and you never know what your opponents are going to be like on the day. They have played very badly against Chelsea this season but they do have a history of being able to turn it on against the bigger teams. They beat Arsenal last season at the Riverside, and deservedly so. You never know what you’re going to get from Boro and really the first goal has been proving crucial. If you can get your nose in front you can go on to win. I do think that Boro have suffered from a loss of morale when things have gone against them, probably because of their young side at the moment.”
THE MAN IN CHARGE
“Gareth Southgate is trying to create a new team and there is a lot of youth and Premier League inexperience in the side which has counted against them recently. I think the fans are all behind him and he certainly has the total support of chairman Steve Gibson which is the most important thing. He was seen as a bit of gamble when he was appointed just over two years ago but since he was worked diligently to transform the whole squad really. There has been a lot of players leaving, you compare the current team to two years ago and it is vastly different already.
“It is now Gareth Southgate’s side and he probably has a lot to prove as a manager in that the changes he has made need to stand up and be counted. The expectations for Southgate are higher than ever, certainly in the eyes of the fans, and they do expect him to produce.”
REASONS TO BE CHEERFUL
“Every club mentions Europe when things start going well. I suspect it is a bit ambitious to talk about anything like that at the moment. One thing that Gareth did say at the start of the season is that Boro were aiming for the top half and he believed that he had a squad quite capable of finishing there. I think he is right if they can play individually and collectively they are quite capable of finishing in the top half. If you set your sights on finishing just fourth bottom you will probably go down so you do have to have high ambitions.”
MEN OF THE MOMENT
“Jeremie Aliadiere has been given a new role this season at Middlesbrough. He was used as an orthodox striker last year but didn’t get many goals but he has now been slotted in on the right-hand side of midfield. It is a new role for him to get use to and he stills needs to work on the defensive side of his game to be 100% effective there. He has done well, particularly away from home, as he is such a quick player. When Boro try to break out of defence he is the perfect guy to give the ball to. They beat Villa using quick breaking and in that respect Aliadiere was very effective.
“I don’t think he will ever become any more effective in front of goal. Occasionally towards the end of games he gets pushed into the attack as a part of a 4-3-3 when necessary. I think the Jeremie we have got is the Jeremie we see and from Boro’s point of view it is about working on his strengths. If we can get seven or eight goals out of him it would be regarded as a good season.
“The other ex-Gunner, Justin Hoyte, did take a bit of time to settle in but Gareth stuck with him and told him that the spot is his if he can earn it. Certainly over the past few weeks he has really started to fit in and he looks part of the team, he knows everybody and has settled in the North East.
“He is very much an attacking right back so he fits in with the general philosophy that Southgate has. In many respects, Middlesbrough are a poor man’s Arsenal and the emphasis is always placed on attacking. In this respect, Justin is the perfect right back for that role. I think he could improve his defending but he is still a young guy and this will come over the next two or three years. I do think that that Justin has been given the opportunity to make the right-back slot his own for years to come so you could say that the ball is in his court.”
THE ONE TO WATCH
“Stewart Downing is very much a key player at Boro. He is one of the best players to be produced at Middlesbrough in recent years and I think he thoroughly deserves his place in the England squad. If he can build on his recent performances at international level he could get a more regular spot but it is more a case of believing in himself. He certainly believes in himself in the Premier League and he knows he is one of the key players and he has it drummed into him how important his crosses are. I think he is a very effective left winger, arguably as good as anyone in the Premier League.
“I would say he is focused on the job but the transfer speculation probably unsettled him initially as we have been reading these stories for two or three years now. I don’t think there are any indications at all that Southgate has any intention to sell Downing in January even if a big bid does come along.”
“One of the things about Arsenal is that they always let you play. I’m sure the reason that they play that way is because of the amount of quality in the side means they are always confident that they can win. I think it will be a very open game at the Riverside and I do think that Boro do have a chance.
“Boro have not been playing well in the league and have only taken one point from the last two games. We are looking at an Arsenal who could have turned the corner with that terrific win at Chelsea so they will arguably be the more confident side going into the game but I think it boils down to who scores the first goal. I do believe that if Boro can get the first goal then it will make a big difference. That said, they haven’t been putting away their chances, particularly for the record signing Alfonso Alves who has only scored three goals this season – which has really disappointed Boro. If he can knock one in early doors then who is to say what could happen?”
IMPRESSIONS OF ARSENAL
“I am sure they will take confidence from Arsenal’s defeats and I am sure it is something that Southgate will tell his players before the match. You look at some of these sides, like Stoke, they were probably out-physicalled so to speak but I don’t think Middlesbrough are as physical in that sense. Boro too must pick themselves up from a very big body blow in losing at Hull in the last minute.”