Taking a wrong turn on the A66, the Arsenal bus got lost on Teesside yesterday. It is tempting to say that when it finally appeared at the Riverside just over an hour before kick-off, it was like John Darwin's canoe, empty. Devoid of their usual vivacious personality, Arsne Wenger's young team succumbed to a first defeat of the season, a first in 24 Premier League games stretching back to 7 April. That hardly represents a crisis of identity Arsenal remain top of the table but this was a pale imitation of the vibrant form that took them there. It means that two trips to the North-east in five days have yielded a mere point and with Chelsea next, albeit at home, Arsenal need to quickly rediscover their direction and flow. Having Robin van Persie and Mathieu Flamini back should help, but Wenger was doubtful about the possible availability of Alexander Hleb and Cesc Fabregas.
Without that quartet once again, for a fourth consecutive away game, Arsenal, as Wenger admitted, "lacked creativity". An indication of that came when Tomas Rosicky drilled in a low shot from 16 yards in the fifth minute of injury time it was literally Arsenal's first serious effort on target.
Given that Middlesbrough's goalkeeper, Ross Turnbull, is third choice on Teesside, that was a remarkable oversight, all the more so as Boro had won only twice this season, the last victory being here on 1 September against Birmingham City. That was 11 games ago and winning had become such a distant memory that manager Gareth Southgate said his players needed "reminding" of what it feels like.
That feeling is warm and comforting and with Robert Huth and Julio Arca coming off the bench, there are signs that Boro can now think about upwards movement. They go to Derby County on Saturday eight points ahead of the bottom club.
"It's a step in the right direction for us," Southgate said, "but if we go to Derby and don't get something then it could be a false dawn. But in the past five or six weeks we've got some of our resilience and character back, what we also got today was the gloss."
Wenger was suitably impressed, describing Southgate as "one of the young English managers who could have a good career," before assessing the defeat in interesting terms: "We lost because we deserved to lose. They were sharper in the fight and we gave them too much room. Physically we were jaded, this was a fourth away game on the trot."
Seville and Aston Villa preceded Newcastle last Wednesday and only one of those matches has been won. It will enhance confidence in those who think Wenger's squad is too small, too lightweight and too inexperienced. Having now played their game in hand, Arsenal sit a point ahead of Manchester United and all Wenger would say of the title race was: "It will be tight."
Wenger was gracious and smiling yet had earlier said to Radio Five Live that Boro had played "illegally". He had made reference to Fabio Rochemback's "intelligence" in terms of midfield fouling, but there was admiration overall that Boro had beaten Arsenal by out-passing them rather than kicking them.
Beaten 3-0 by Villa in their last home game, this was a leap forward. Where they have been weak and diffident in attack, yesterday they were strong and purposeful. Tuncay Sanli, buoyed by his first goal for the club at Reading last weekend, displayed the will and ability that has made him such an important figure in Turkish football.
Tuncay's 73rd minute strike, squeezed in with style and guile at the far post after Manuel Almunia had parried Gary O'Neil's snapshot, proved to be the winner, but his all-round contribution was equally significant.
Alongside Tuncay, Jrmie Aliadire also had his best game in a Middlesbrough shirt, repaying some of the loyalty Southgate has shown in him. When Mido returns, Southgate will have enjoyable alternatives.
Aliadire set the tone for the afternoon when he raced onto O'Neil's tasty third-minute pass into the Arsenal area.
Chasing Aliadire, Kolo Tour bumped him, then felled him. Stewart Downing stepped up and buried a crisp penalty.
It was only the third time this season that Middlesbrough's players have known what it is like to be in front and their determination to hold on to to the lead was evident. In Arsenal's midfield, Rosicky looked harassed, while up front Emmanuel Adebayor can rarely have had as quiet a match.
All the while Aliadire and Tuncay stretched the play. Their energy and mobility led to chances in the 50th minute for Tuncay and, in the 60th, for George Boateng. Then, 13 minutes on, Tuncay scored the decisive second from a Downing corner.
Rosicky's late goal was nothing like a consolation and after four games away, Wenger was left thinking of home. As Middlesbrough are sponsored by a Sat-Nav firm, he may have asked them for fresh direction.
Goals: Downing (4, pen) 1-0, Tuncay (74) 2-0, Rosicky (90) 2-1.
Middlesbrough (4-4-1-1) Turnbull; Young, Woodgate (Huth 73) Wheater, Pogatetz; O'Neil, Boateng, Rochemback, Downing; Tuncay (Johnson 90); Aliadire (Arca 81) Substitutes not used: Steele, Dong Gook
Arsenal (4-4-2) Almunia; Sagna, Tour, Gallas, Clichy; Ebou (Walcott 61) Diarra (Denilson 61) Gilberto, Rosicky; Adebayor, Eduardo (Bendtner h-t) Substitutes not used: Lehmann (gk), Senderos
Referee: H Webb (Yorkshire)
Booked: Middlesbrough O'Neil, Rochemback Arsenal Tour, Clichy
Man of the match: Tuncay
Attendance: 26,428Reuse content