Arsene Wenger’s side saw their eight-match winning run in all competitions come to an end on the coach’s birthday at the hands of Aitor Karanka’s newly promoted outfit.
Arsenal edged to the top of the Premier League but there was little else to cheer for Arsene Wenger on his 67th birthday as his team played out a goalless draw against Middlesbrough at the Emirates Stadium.
Winless since beating north-east rivals Sunderland in August, Boro could feel aggrieved not to lead at the break after Petr Cech pulled off impressive saves to deny Adama Traore and Gaston Ramirez either side of the latter clattering the angle of post and crossbar with a brilliant free-kick.
So fluent in recent weeks, Arsenal were fitful in attack and Victor Valdes’ best save in the Boro goal came as he athletically thwarted Alexis Sanchez from distance.
Theo Walcott scored for the seventh time in six matches in the 6-0 Champions League demolition of Ludogorets on Wednesday but he fell well short of those standards and midweek hat-trick hero Mesut Ozil had a goal correctly ruled out for offside in stoppage time.
Aitor Karanka’s fourth-bottom side once again proved a tough nut to crack on their travels – six of their seven points this season have now come away from the Riverside Stadium.
Arsenal began confidently in pursuit of an eighth consecutive win in all competitions, pushing Middlesbrough deep into their own territory as Ozil lifted a free-kick over and Mohamed Elneny – into a midfield missing Santi Cazorla and Granit Xhaka through injury and suspension respectively – fired wide.
Ozil had a penalty appeal rejected after a coming together with Marten de Roon before a pair of scares for the hosts.
Alvaro Negredo won a 19th-minute flick-on from Daniel Ayala’s raking pass and Traore darted in behind Laurent Koscielny but Cech stood firm.
The Arsenal goalkeeper was helpless a minute later when Ramirez came agonisingly close with his vicious, swerving free-kick, while opposite number Valdes was called upon to keep out a Sanchez set piece.
In the 33rd minute, a clear chance again fell Middlesbrough’s way as Koscielny blocked Negredo’s header from Traore’s cross and Cech was out superbly to deny Ramirez from point-blank range on the rebound.
Wenger’s men resumed with renewed purpose and Valdes should have been punished when he fumbled in the area and Koscielny could not convert Sanchez’s hook across goal.
The 34-year-old then showed some of the form that helped to establish him as Barcelona’s long-time number one by sprawling to keep out a dipping low Sanchez drive.
But this wave of pressure did not put Boro into survival mode and Hector Bellerin had to make a challenge to deny De Roon before Cech tipped wide at full stretch after Traore’s electric pace cut the Arsenal defence to ribbons before the hour.
An untimely error from the impressive Ramirez almost allowed Walcott to open the scoring but the England man shot too close to Valdes.
The former Spain international remained relatively unthreatened during the closing stages bar one disappointing effort from Sanchez, while Koscielny needed to make a last-ditch tackle to prevent Negredo stealing the points.
Arsenal briefly thought Ozil had pilfered a victory but their stay at the summit will be short-lived if Liverpool beat West Brom by two goals in Saturday’s late kick-off.