What’s Going On Back There?

by Dave Hearn

Before we start, I’d just like to say that, generally speaking, I’m not really a fan of using too many statistics(other than the good ones, like goals and points and stuff) when it comes to evaluating how a particular football team may be getting on over a prolonged period of time because there are always avenues available for people with their own interpretations of them to stroll down with their argument. But for Boro fans there are statistics out there that make for truly awful reading. Truly awful as well. Like being woken up at 4am in the morning by Peter Mandelson prodding you in the ribs with a Parker pen whilst wearing nothing but a neckerchief. In a Travelodge. Imagine that! Awful, isn’t it. Anyway, that’s the level of awful we’re dealing with here.

Since January 1st, Boro have played thirty league games. In those games, we’ve won just four of them. One of those wins came at Charlton Athletic this season with the other three coming at home to Leeds United, Nottingham Forest and Cardiff City during the last campaign. We’ve drawn eight of those thirty games, with five of those coming this season and three of them last. That leaves us looking at eighteen defeats in thirty league games. Over the whole year, we’ve plummeted from first place in the league to eighteenth(we finished sixteenth last season and, in truth, there is a very strong case to be made for saying that if the season had gone on for another four or five games we’d have been relegated to the third-tier). Even if you include the cup competitions, well, things don’t really get much better. Last season we beat Hastings United and Aldershot Town in the FA Cup before succumbing to Chelsea in the fifth round. This season we contrived to lose at home to Accrington Stanley, a side struggling along at the bottom of the fourth-tier, in the first round of the League Cup. This is grim, very grim, but it gets worse for us. We’ve scored twenty-eight goals in those thirty league games whilst conceding fifty-three. We haven’t come from behind to win a game from a losing position since the 4-1 victory at Charlton Athletic last November. This season, we’ve played nine league games and won only one. Throw in the game against Accrington and that makes it one win from ten. We already carry a goal difference of minus four and we have eight points from nine games. We’re already ten points and ten goals off sixth place and, despite the season still being in it’s infancy, that’s quite a sizeable piece of ground we’ve got to make up if we are to mount any sort of challenge for a play-off place. It gets even worse; in the last three games, Boro have given away four penalties(one at Forest, two against Bournemouth and one at QPR), we’ve conceded two own goals(one against Bournemouth and one at QPR) and we’ve have had two men sent-off(Ledesma at Forest and Williams against Bournemouth).

Like I said, these are truly awful statistics and it’s almost impossible to interpret them in any other way. They are dreadful. Most clubs would have dismissed their manager long ago, in truth, and yet Tony Mowbray is still in the Boro dug-out, still beavering away for a solution as to how he can address one of the worst runs of form in the club’s long and proud history.

The work he did in the summer in terms of bringing new players in and allowing some of those involved in last season’s embarrassing capitulation to leave the club appears to have been, generally speaking, pretty good. Whitehead in for Bailey, Butterfield in for a combination of Dyer and Zemmama, Varga in for McEachran, Kamara in for McDonald, Adomah added to the squad to finally address the problematic right-hand side. We also added Richardson and Konstantopoulos for a bit of cover and competition. It all appears to be sound business and, despite this season’s results not being much better than those achieved in the second-half of the last one, there are definite improvements in the way we play the game at times. We look more of a threat going forward, we’ve got some genuine pace in the side, Butterfield can certainly pick a forward pass and we look like we’ve got some goals in us. But, for all of that good work, you still have the central issues that destroyed last season hanging around over this one, ruining what good stuff there is and costing us important points along the way.

At the end of last season, and over the course of the summer, there was a general consensus that the one thing the Boro side needed most was a captain. A genuine captain. Somebody who plays at the heart of the defence, who heads not only the ball out of his penalty-area but the opposition striker as well, somebody who organises the lads(especially at set-pieces), somebody who generally leads by example, does the basics right and plays like he cares about his job and his team-mates. The centre of defence, in particular, was our biggest worry and yet it remains unaddressed. In fact, it appears to have got worse.

One of my biggest worries at the moment is how on earth a manager such as Tony Mowbray, given the way he himself played the game and led his team out there on the pitch every week, the things he gave his team as a captain and the value of those things in terms of leadership, organisation and togetherness, can allow the issues that have been eating the heart of our side away for months on end to continue without putting them to bed. The Williams/Woodgate partnership doesn’t look like the answer, certainly not for the long-term, but Mogga persists in pairing them up whenever they’re available and we’re now at the point where that in itself seems somewhat baffling. George Friend’s positional sense, his defensive capabilities overall, are also something the manager needs to think about as it’s an area of our side that opposition managers have seemingly targeted as a potential ‘weak spot’.

With Woodgate picking up his first injury of the season at Loftus Road on Saturday and Rhys Williams suspended, and with only the injury-magnet Seb Hines and young Ben Gibson as back-up, we’re now scratching around in the loan-market for a central-defender to come in and attempt to correct a series of deep-rooted problems that stretch back months. It’s a far from ideal situation we find ourselves in and it’s very difficult, even for an eternal optimist such as myself, to see where the next good run of form is going to come from given the degree of vulnerability in our back-line.

We’ve got two home games coming up, starting against Huddersfield Town at the Riverside on Tuesday evening with Yeovil Town to follow on Saturday, and despite the season being at such an early stage it already feels like we’re in ‘must win’ territory. And, even if we do win these two games, the alarming form over the course of this calendar year means the growing pressure on the gaffer will subside on a temporary basis. As more people reach the conclusion that it’s time for a change of manager, two wins, three wins even, followed up by a defeat or a poor performance cranks the pressure right back up again. We need to go on a run of epic proportions, similar to the kinds of runs we’ve gone on in each of Mogga’s three years in the job, if we are to put this pressure to bed once and for all but, sadly, that feels a very long way off at the moment.

I’m right behind Tony Mowbray, I’ve got everything crossed that he can turn it around for us and lead us back into the top-half of the table and beyond, but he has to sort out the mess we’ve become at the back and he has to do it soon. If he doesn’t then the chairman will have little option but to change things and, taking those god-awful statistics into consideration, it’d be very hard to disagree with him.