Middlesbrough get chance to extend struggling Arsenal's woes
Arsenal head to the Riverside Stadium a week after a very difficult night in South London, where they fell 3-0 to relegation contenders Crystal Palace. Monday evening's fixture will be interesting to many, given it's a meeting of two sides under intense pressure at different ends of the league table.
Latent caretaker manager Steve Agnew has collected two points from four games since he took over from Aitor Karanka. While many fans thought that the agreement for Karanka to part ways with 'Boro came much too late in the season, there was still hope that it might spark a change within the current squad. However, it would be fair to say that Agnew has little available to him to turn things around: the personnel hasn't changed and he too has been indoctrinated with Karanka's hyperdefensive setup. Even if 'Boro wanted to completely flip things and go for a more progressive and attacking formation, he just wouldn't have the players to do it successfully.
In terms of starting lineups, 'Boro will be able to select from the full complement of midfield and attacking players. Similarly to Arsenal, their injury worries are all settled around the defence. George Friend, Fabio and on-loan Gunner Calum Chambers are all sidelined for the long term and those absences have shown in results over the past couple of months, with weaknesses becoming apparent in the esteemed 'Boro backline.
Agnew has countered this lately by shifting to four in midfield as an attempt to break defensive negativity, but the defence looked clearly uncomfortable with less support and holes began to appear. This is 'Boro's main issue: they don't have the quality of players to manage to successfully attack and defend in the same setup.
Positives in the Agnew era have come in the form of a handful of goals. Rudy Gestede scored a goal that gave 'Boro brief hope of a comeback against Manchester United back in March, and the Teessiders scored twice in a recent away outing at Hull but it wasn't enough to prevent a sucker punch 4-2 defeat. One can only hope that the likes of Gestede, Alvaro Negredo and Patrick Bamford have gained confidence from recent appearances and will relish the opportunity to take on an under-par and injury-ridden Arsenal back line.
'Boro can also look back fondly to their trip to the Emirates Stadium in October, where they put in an impressive and measured performance to come away with a point, and they can take some courage from that.
It feels like Arsene Wenger is waiting to announce plans about his future at a more positive moment, and he'll be hoping that after a victory at Middlesbrough will be the time. Arsenal will claim that a win on Monday is absolutely essential if they are to keep alive any hopes of finishing in the top four.
There has also been plenty of talk in the past few weeks around what Arsenal would need to do to retain the services of Alexis Sanchez in the summer. This, and questions about the happiness of Mesut Ozil and why the Gunners' best striker, Olivier Giroud, is constantly resigned to the bench, are telling. Losing to Crystal Palace in the manner that they did, against a team who have grappled with the threat of relegation all season, was embarrassing and demoralising. Supporters will be looking for an instant reaction from the North London side.
Unrest is currently rife at Arsenal and given how unlikely it is that Boro will pick up many more points over the course of the rest of the season, this game offers just as good a chance as any. Arsenal haven't won away from home for four games now and 'Boro fans will be crossing their fingers that it will soon be five.