Arsenal 1 Middlesbrough 1: Woodgate's resilience frustrates the Gunners

Miserable start for Arsenal as possession is wasted
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The Independent Football

What a signing. Not William Gallas, who played tidily enough on his Arsenal debut, but another big-name defender making his first appearance for his new club. Jonathan Woodgate was immense. He galvanised Middlesbrough. He inspired them. And he showed the kind of form which, if maintained, along with his ever fragile fitness, makes him a shoo-in for England.

To add to the piquancy this was his first competitive start since limping off after just 10 minutes of a Real Madrid Champions' League tie in February with a thigh injury. The opponents then? Arsenal.

"Incredible," said Middlesbrough's manager Gareth Southgate who endured one of the most chaotic afternoons of his brief managerial career. His captain, George Boateng, was dismissed for two yellow cards - the first for arguing after a quick Thierry Henry free-kick, the second for trying to part Fredrik Ljungberg's knee from the rest of his leg on the touch-line - with Southgate's assistant Steve Round sent to the stands for persistently protesting.

Above it all rose Woodgate, playing for his hometown team. For the first-half he was majestic, serene and solid. By the end he could barely walk. "He just showed the class he's got," said Southgate who snapped him up on a season's loan from Real and probably can't believe his luck.

Arsenal's manager, Arsène Wenger, was ruing his. Once more his team had fallen behind, once more they struggled to break down packed defences. It is now, officially, Arsenal's worst start to a Premiership campaign - a statistic that had Wenger's nose curling, though he asserted: "I have never [before] had the feeling that there was so much potential in the team to do better". The key is unlocking it.

"I'm concerned," said Wenger. "I cannot say I'm not worried with the amount of possession we have that we do not win." Southgate offered another point of view. "We were not playing against the legend of Highbury," he said of a first visit to the Emirates Stadium. It was at the old ground that Middlesbrough were crushed 7-0 last season. It was there also that they have conceded "more than 20 goals in four visits," Southgate said. "We have no history here," he added.

Neither do Arsenal. A new stadium is often double-edged for clubs and it will take some getting used to after the tight environs of Highbury. There, Arsenal used to build up such a head of steam, such a stream of passing movements that opponents inevitably wilted. Wenger acknowledged that and promised to make improvements on the training pitch. His players need to use the width the new surface now gives them, he said.

In the end Arsenal needed a penalty, conceded rashly by Stewart Downing after he scythed down Emmanuel Eboué following another energetic burst into the penalty area by the young Ivorian. Thierry Henry slotted home to strike his first goal this season - but his seventh in the last four home games against Boro.

From the edgy start made by the visitors it appeared they would again be cannon fodder. After their 4-0 mauling against Portsmouth they left Yakubu Aiyegbeni alone up front and asked Jason Euell to provide support. He started off chasing shadows but it soon transpired that Arsenal were in a profligate mood. A swerving shot by Henry was followed by a rising one from Alexander Hleb. Mark Schwarzer ably dealt with both. Robin van Persie cleared the bar, as he reached Eboué's cross, before the goalkeeper fisted away a free-kick from the Dutch striker and Andrew Taylor blocked Eboué's effort.

By then Boro had scored. A rare break-out was instigated by James Morrison who embarrassed Johan Djourou. The 21-year-old exchanged quick passes with Euell and was suddenly goal-side of the disorientated defender. He struck a shot with the outside of his right-foot across Jens Lehmann and into the net. Arsenal were stunned.

Suddenly they were, again, playing catch-up. They huffed, puffed - but appeared to run out of steam. The siege was on but Schwarzer was inspired and Woodgate marshalled his men. Boateng went, Henry scored and Wenger threw on all three substitutes - including new boy Julio Baptista - at once. It made little difference. Schwarzer dealt with Tomas Rosicky's powerful shot while Gallas' drive skimmed over. It wasn't to be his day. It was to be Woodgate's.