Middlesbrough 3 AFC Bournemouth 3
by Dave Hearn
The way both teams set themselves up yesterday, both adopting a 4-5-1-cum-4-3-3 formation, both looking to pass the ball wherever possible and both selecting two wingers to play off a central-striker, meant we were always in for an entertaining game of football with the possibility of plenty of goal-mouth action and expansive football. And that’s pretty much what happened, in truth, though both sides have serious deficiencies to address in their respective defensive games if they are to progress this season.
Boro started slowly, being somewhat sloppy in possession and seemingly happy for Bournemouth to stroke the ball around at their own leisure. We did manage to get a foot on it only for Grant Leadbitter to be bundled off the ball just inside his own half, presenting Bournemouth with an opportunity to thread something into the area for Tokelo Rantie to run onto. Rhys Williams came across to try and quell threat but ended up making what seemed to be a pretty rash tackle and giving a penalty away. At the time, it seemed harsh as the ball changed direction on the back of Williams making his tackle, and I wasn’t sure if the tackle was actually made in the area, but the referee had little hesitation in pointing to the spot. Brett Pitman stepped up and smashed the ball straight down the middle and firmly into the net. After that, we struggled for a while. Bournemouth continued to knock the ball around and frustrate the home crowd and Boro’s reluctance to put a tackle in grew stronger. Their players were strolling around, sauntering forwards with the ball unchallenged, with our midfield happy to let them get on with it. It was no real surprise when we went 2-0 down, not really, not if we’re being honest about it. We pulled everybody back for a corner, cleared two balls out of our area without much fuss but the fact we’d brought all eleven players back meant we had no ‘out ball’ and Bournemouth were happy to just knock it back in and keep us pinned back. On the third occasion, a header back across goal struck the hand of Frazer Richardson and the referee awarded the Cherries a second penalty-kick. It seemed harsh at the time, again, but if the Boro weren’t given a penalty for that sort of thing I’d have been annoyed. Jason Steele almost saved it but such was the pace with which it was struck it flew into the roof of the net and we were 2-0 down after twelve minutes purely because we’d started with such a lack of intensity.
From then on we started to get going. Kei Kamara remained fairly isolated for large parts of the first-half but, slowly but surely, we got players, namely Leadbitter and Butterfield, a little closer to him and we started to pose a threat. We got one or two balls in behind Bournemouth’s full-backs though struggled to put anything decent over, with Richardson wasting some good opportunities to pick a team-mate out. We managed to carve out an opening for Carayol to get a shot off but a rather ‘agricultural’ tackle on him meant the ball broke for Kamara, who stuck his chance away at the second time of asking. The ref decided that a seemingly two-footed lunge on Carayol wasn’t worthy of even a booking, which seems slightly odd(though probably in keeping with his referring generally). The mood within the stadium immediately lifted and Boro continued to try and force their way back into it, with Butterfield continually looking to get himself on the ball and play forward passes as opposed to the sideways stuff we’ve perhaps become accustomed to at certain times this season. The way we’d fought back and refused to give up on the game, after such a horrendous opening twenty or so minutes, would suggest it’s fair to say we’d earned the luck we got through Carayol’s ambitious shot from outside the area looping up off the defender, over the ‘keeper and into the net.
The second-half began like the first one had ended, with Grant Leadbitter’s drive and endeavour carrying the team forwards at times. He was careless in possession a lot of the time but he did drag some of the other lads on through sheer hard work and graft. Carayol was pretty lively down the right though he couldn’t quite get his final ball right for the most part, Kamara won the majority of his headers again but to real avail and Butterfield’s enthusiasm for wanting the ball and for always trying to make positive things happen never subsided despite not looking fully-fit. We went close with a Williams header from a set-piece into the area but the frustration was growing as Bournemouth, and their goalkeeper in particular, attempted to waste as much time as they possibly could in the hope they kept a hold of their point. We put a couple of things in for Kamara, we got more men into the box than we usually do and we pressed Bournemouth right back inside their own area but we couldn’t really create anything by way of clear-cut chances. Finally we got in behind them and Leadbitter tucked away his chance with his left-peg. It was no more than we deserved at that moment in time and the relief inside the stadium was tangible.
However, as well settled down back into our seats and got back into the game the expectancy that we would concede seemed to wash over everyone, players included. We stopped what we’d been doing, we dropped off, we sat deeper, we stopped defending on the front-foot and allowed the opposition to move further up the pitch and have the ball where they wanted it. They created an opportunity by getting in behind Williams and Friend, again, only for Williams to recover and put a very strong tackle in; they appealed for a penalty and you get the feeling that if they hadn’t have already been awarded two penalties in the first-half then the referee would’ve blown up for a foul that time as well.
We didn’t learn our lesson though and the inevitable equaliser followed soon after, with George Friend being caught the wrong side of their winger, again, and said winger putting something into our six-yard box. Woodgate tried to cut it out but only succeeded in nudging it beyond Steele and into the bottom corner of our own net. The frustration was compounded a couple of minutes later when Williams was sent-off for bringing his man down after he’d been caught the wrong side of his man for what felt like the umpteenth time.
Mowbray made some subs and shoved Gibson on for Carayol when Williams had been dismissed, and then decided to throw Jutkiewicz and Varga on at the death as a couple of the lads were knackered and the long-ball was the only way we ever likely to pinch a win at that stage. Jutkiewicz seemed to have a knack of knowing roughly where Kamara’s headers were going to drop, which was encouraging, and I’d like to have seen them given longer than a few minutes together. We did manage to whip one more cross in for Kamara, whose header was tipped over the bar by Bournemouth’s ‘keeper.
It feels like we’ve dropped another two points there, which is made worse by the fact we’d fought back from being 2-0 down so early on in the game. We played some good football at times and could’ve had a couple more than three, as well as a penalty for what looked like a push on Kamara when he was going up for a header, but said good football is always going to go to waste if you defend like we defended. They got in behind Friend too many times and it looked like they’d targeted him specifically as a possible weak link in our defence. We dominated large parts of the match, indeed Bournemouth didn’t muster a single shot on target in open play, and yet we failed to beat a side fresh out of the third-tier despite scoring three goals against them on our own patch.
We’ve got some serious work to do on the training ground over the next couple of weeks if we want to stop all of our good work from going to waste. The worry is that the lads being asked to play at the back at the moment are so brittle when it comes to defending leads, and holding onto points, that things aren’t really going to change for the better in the way we would hope. It’d be nice to concentrate on all the positive aspects to come out of the game but when you defend as we did, and it’s not the first time we’ve defended poorly this season, then it’s hard not to be worried about what might happen over the next few games.