MIDDLESBROUGH: Beleaguered Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger challenged his players to win every game between now and the end of the season to keep alive faint hopes of a top-four Premier League finish.
Seven league wins is the only way the Frenchman reckons that Arsenal can secure a Champions League place after ending a run of four away league defeats with a 2-1 victory over struggling Middlesbrough on Monday.
“We have to win every game to have a chance to get in the top four,” said Wenger, who has yet to finish outside the top four in his 21-year reign.
“And that run starts with this win over Middlesbrough.
“The end of the season will come very quickly and it is up to us to finish strongly.
“We can do that, but also we will have to — had we not won against Middlesbrough I would have conceded that the top four was beyond us.”
Wenger switched personnel and formation as he looked to put an end to one of the worst runs in his managerial career — making six changes and playing three at the back for the first time since 1997.
“Yes, I did something I had not done in 20 years — but that just goes to show that even at my age I can still change,” he smiled.
“I went with three at the back to give more reassurance to the team especially as we were up against a team which we thought might have played a direct game.
“It was a committed game that we needed to win.
“I think because of their pride they made it a difficult first half and then when they came back at us and equalised, it was a test for us.
“It was tough for us because they are fighting hard to stay in the division and we might have ridden our luck on one or two occasions but I thought we were defensively stronger than previous games.”
– ‘Bit of nervousness’ –
Wenger’s tactics helped keep a determined Boro at bay and the Gunners won the game through goals from Alexis Sanchez in the first half and Mesut Ozil in the second — though Alvaro Negredo equalised for Boro five minutes after the break.
Wenger sensed uncharacteristic anxiety in his out-of-form players before the game, which he hopes will now have been overcome.
“We were a bit over-cautious against Middlesbrough but hopefully the win over them will now give us more confidence,” he said.
“There was a bit of nervousness in our dressing room before kick-off because we had not had a good run and that can happen — confidence in life goes away quickly and comes back slowly — but this result helps.”
There was some irony over the fact that Arsenal’s goal-scoring heroes were both players who have been linked with moves away from the Emirates this summer.
But after refusing to talk about his own future at the club, Wenger dismissed speculation about his two attackers.
“There has been speculation over both players but that does not enter into things when match-day comes because it is all about the game then and they will always give their all.”
For Boro boss Steve Agnew, there was the pain of another defeat but pride in the way his relegation-threatened players performed.
“The players were amazing, I couldn’t ask any more of them,” he said.
“I felt that when we scored we had Arsenal on the back foot and at that point we just needed the ball to fall to us.
“We all realise the task ahead now, we are six points off safety but we have a game in hand and a terrific goal difference.”