After seeing Middlesbrough dump Manchester City out of the FA Cup in the previous round, and the impressive run of form the Teesiders have been on in the Championship, I can’t have been the only Arsenal fan who approached the FA Cup fifth round match with a large amount of trepidation. When Arsenal’s pretty lackadaisical performance against Leicester was added into the pre-match mix, all the ingredients were there for a potential cup upset.
Much like the fourth round against Brighton, Arsenal didn’t follow the script for a shock as Arsene Wenger’s team did a professional job on the Championship team. Even though it was only a 2-0 win, the Gunners rarely looked in danger and completely controlled the game. Especially in the first half, Middlesbrough weren’t given a sniff of a shock as they were pinned back in their own half. It was Boro’s impressive counter-attacking which had done for Manchester City in round four, but Arsenal weren’t in the mood to give any cheap goals away. Mesut Ozil and Santi Cazorla ran the game from midfield and looked after the ball well to starve the visitors of any opportunities to try and catch Arsenal cold.
Whereas Arsenal had a slightly unbalanced attacking line-up against Leicester, with Mesut Ozil often finding himself as a ‘false 9’, Olivier Giroud provided Arsenal with a focal point against Middlesbrough, with Welbeck, Alexis, Ozil, Cazorla and the full-backs playing some lovely football around the Frenchman.
After dominating the early exchanges, Arsenal made the breakthrough with a fantastic team goal in the 27th minute. Every Arsenal player on the pitch was involved in the move that came to conclusion when Santi Cazorla slid in Kieran Gibbs down the left, and the full-back set up Olivier Giroud to sweep the ball home. Middlesbrough haven’t conceded many goals of late, but they looked unable to cope when Arsenal came at them at full tilt. Arsene Wenger pointed out that after the game that Arsenal had played at a Premier League tempo for most of the game, and that was perfectly illustrated by the first goal as the Gunners carved their way through the defence.
The second goal came shortly afterwards as Alexis Sanchez and Olivier Giroud’s quick thinking was too good for the Championship opponents. With the visitors not set-up to defend a corner, Alexis whipped in an early cross to the near post for Giroud to run onto and crisply volley the ball past the goalkeeper. Considering he missed three months of the season through injury, Giroud has done well to reach double figures in terms of goal scoring. He’s becoming more clinical and is now a much more reliable option for Arsene Wenger up front.
Scoring quick back-to-back goals knocked the stuffing out of the visitors, and allowed Arsenal to cruise through the rest of the match. Even though Arsenal did take the foot off the pedal slightly, the focus and intensity of the performance didn’t drop, and up until Kike heading against the post in injury time at the end of the match, Wojciech Szczesny was rarely troubled in his return to the team.
Even though Arsene Wenger made some changes to the starting line-up, because it contained players who have real competition for a regular place in the team, Arsenal looked motivated. The likes of Chambers, Gibbs, Flamini and Welbeck aren’t guaranteed starters anymore, and the way they all played was a reminder to Arsene Wenger that they want their places back.
After the tense finish on Tuesday, the comfortable win was just what Arsenal needed. The team heeded the warnings from the previous round and did a professional job. Onto the quarter finals.