Home improvement has Wenger papering over Arsenal's cracks

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The Independent Football

The Emirates Stadium is rumoured to be an arena that will take people's breath away when Arsenal decamp Highbury for their new home next summer - it may even make Chelsea envious. It seems a pity, therefore, that the Gunners appear intent on taking a declining team with them, one which appears to be crumbling away with every breezeblock that is laid at Ashburton Grove.

Plenty have had their say about the risks of spending money on bricks and mortar ahead of investing in a team which clearly requires major reconstruction if Arsenal are to pose any real threat to Chelsea in the Premiership.

Success in finishing runners-up to Jose Mourinho's team last season and their fortuitous FA Cup final victory over Manchester United may have papered over the cracks, but losing against Middlesbrough is surely a wake-up call. After eight successive victories over the Teessiders, perhaps this defeat may finally ensure that the alarm bells are audible at Highbury.

Two defeats already this campaign have left Arsenal nine points adrift of Chelsea. True, they were without the injured Thierry Henry for this game - he will also miss Wednesday's Champions' League match against FC Thun - but Patrick Vieira won't be back and Arsène Wenger shows no desire to reinstate the fit-again Sol Campbell to his hapless defence. Chelsea can cope without key players, but Arsenal cannot and that reality has seeped through to the dressing-room.

Ashley Cole said: "It's always going to be very hard when you lose key players, but what can you do? We've lost Patrick, who was our main inspiration in midfield and we've only got one in with Aleksandr Hleb.

"We've not really bought anyone else, so you can only deal with what you've got and hope that they can fill the boots of people like Patrick, Sol and Thierry."

It is difficult to imagine Campbell, who proved his fitness following a calf injury with an outing for the reserves last week, allowing Middlesbrough's lone striker Aiyegbeni Yakubu to give him the runaround that he treated Kolo Touré and Pascal Cygan to on Saturday. Touré has his admirers, but his form rarely holds up without Campbell alongside him, and he and Cygan were culpable for both Boro goals.

Yakubu's strength allowed him to out-muscle Touré for the first and Cygan opted to go walkabout as Massimo Maccarone scored his first Boro goal since May 2004 to secure victory. In midfield, Hleb showed neat touches, but he is no Vieira and Boro's five-man system dominated the game.

Jose Antonio Reyes scored deep in injury time but it was far too late. The game was lost by that stage, perhaps along with the championship. "If you look at the history of the championship, this is very early to have lost two games, so it's going to be very hard from now," Cole added. " If we lose more than four, then it's going to be a struggle."

For Boro's Gareth Southgate, victory was a reward for his team's positive approach. "Lots of teams change their formation and don't have a go at the top teams," he said. "But we didn't do that and we deserved to win."

Goals: Yakubu (40) 1-0; Maccarone (59) 2-0; Reyes (90) 2-1.

Middlesbrough (4-5-1): Schwarzer; Xavier, Ehiogu, Southgate, Queudrue; Maccarone (Doriva, 79), Parlour, Boateng, Rochemback, Johnson (Pogatetz, 65); Yakubu (Graham, 89). Substitutes not used: Jones (gk), Kennedy.

Arsenal (4-4-1-1): Lehmann; Lauren, Touré, Cygan, Cole; Pires (Van Persie, 72), Flamini, (Fabregas, 60), Gilberto, Hleb; Bergkamp; Reyes. Substitutes not used: Almunia (gk), Senderos, Clichy.

Referee: M Riley (W Yorkshire).

Booked: Middlesbrough Boateng, Queudrue, Rochemback; Arsenal Cole, Flamini, Lauren, Fabregas.

Man of the match: Yakubu.

Attendance: 28,075.