Misfiring Gunners ensure it's a birthday to forget for Wenger
Arsenal 0 Middlesbrough 0
Rather than a case of many happy returns on Arsene Wenger's 67th birthday, it was instead one big unhappy reminder of why so many of his last few years have been such a toil.
There's no other way to put it. This was just typical Arsenal. After a soaring, seven-game winning run that charged a new optimism about challenging for the title, they slipped up 0-0 in what seemed the most winnable of home games, against struggling Middlesbrough. The fact they were so negatively affected by an injury to a key player - this time Santi Cazorla, who had an Achilles problem - only layered the sense of deja vu.
The only sense of consolation for Wenger, meanwhile, was that it could have been a whole lot worse. Middlesbrough probably should have won the game. They had by far the best chances and, as manager Aitor Karanka proudly pointed out, it meant Petr Cech had to be Arsenal's best player.
He pulled off a series of fine saves - especially from one first-half Gaston Ramirez close-range header, and then two Adama Traore breaks - but was still left at the mercy of a very sloppy Arsenal performance in the final minutes, as the goalkeeper required one brilliant Laurent Koscielny tackle to prevent Alvaro Negredo scoring what would have been a certain winner.
That was what it came down to, as well as the linesman's flag. Arsenal did actually have the ball in the net moments later, but Mesut Ozil's close-range strike was correctly ruled out for offside.
It would have been a real gift on Wenger's birthday, as it would also have been completely undeserved. Arsenal barely created anything of note. The best they had was one long shot from an increasingly frustrated Alexis Sanchez that was palmed away by Victor Valdes, and then the goalkeeper spilling the ball at the feet of the Chilean, only for it to meekly float across goal.
Wenger was asked later if was he frustrated.
"I have a frustrated face, certainly," he responded, actually seeming rather stoney-faced. "We had a lot of the ball, but a lot of the ball in the modern game is not enough to win a game."
Part of that was undoubtedly down to how much Middlesbrough put into the performance, and how well they dealt with Arsenal's possession.
"We were 95 minutes, 150 per cent concentrated on the pitch," Karanka said. "The plan worked."
That plan seemed to be sit tight and deal with Arsenal's usual flying start, before repeatedly hitting them on the break. It also led to Ramirez hitting the bar with one brilliant first-half free-kick.
A further factor, however, was that Arsenal didn't have Cazorla. It meant they didn't have anyone to properly release the running of Sanchez, Theo Walcott and Alex Iwobi in the way that has been so productive and exciting in the last few weeks.
Their flow had been disrupted, and the wonder is how much this will also disrupt their season.
That, after all, has been another feature of Wenger's last few years. Arsenal can look utterly brilliant when all is going their way, and they're gliding in the manner in that these winning runs allow, but any bump seems to do more than unsettle them and deny them points. It so often seems to upset their balance and belief.
It is why this feels like more than just one bad game.
It is instead precisely why, even as they look so sublime on these winning runs, it is always difficult not to think there is a sense of superficiality to them too; as if the promise of greater things in the long term is entirely and falsely based on a bit of confidence in the short term. The challenge now is how to respond to this.
"You have to find a way to be efficient even in games like that," Wenger said.
Arsenal really have to find a way out of this seemingly endless cycle, where the same things keep repeating.
They may be top of the table on goal difference but it feels like they're no longer on top form.
Sunday Indo Sport