For me, it felt like there was a breath of fresh air about the way we approached this game. Mark Venus was brave and bold and made six changes to the team that started against Barnsley, leaving out several first-team regulars and going with what appeared to be a much more solid formation. Gone was the 4-5-1-cum-4-3-3 and in came a more robust 4-4-2-cum-4-2-3-1. He also took the captaincy from Rhys Williams and gave it to Jonathan Woodgate. So were these mere ‘tweaks’ or were they ‘sweeping changes’? Probably a little bit of both, in truth. What did seem evident is that we were going to try and keep it as tight as possible defensively and whilst starting a home game with what are, to all intents and purposes, four centre-halves playing across the back-line might not seem very adventurous, it served us well and gave our quality players in attack a chance to play with more freedom.
The game started reasonably well, with both teams happy to try and pass the ball around as often as they could. Doncaster probably shaded the first few minutes or so but whilst they struggled to create anything of note, it was Boro who made their quality tell through a superb goal from goal-machine Albert Adomah. Kei Kamara turned his man on the left and threaded a delightful through-ball in behind Donny’s defence for Adomah to latch onto. The consummate ease with which he lobbed the ball over an advancing Ross Turnbull spoke volumes about the confidence he is playing with at the moment. From then on it was good game of football, with both sides happy enough in possession and the Boro seemingly happy to allow Doncaster to play in front of us. There were moments when they threatened to cause us a problem or two but the defenders, particularly Daniel Ayala, kept it simple and did the things our centre-halves have avoided doing this season; he put balls out for throw-ins instead of looking to pass it to Steele or a fellow defender, he headed the ball out of our box a few times and he wasn’t afraid to just boot it up the field if he felt that’s what was needed.
The extra quality in our team showed itself again when Adomah scored a crazy header not long before half-time and from then on the result of the match, for me at least, was never in doubt. We were much more solid at the back than we had been against Huddersfield, Bournemouth, Yeovil and Barnsley and Doncaster never really created anything serious, though they did strike a post. And Williams did almost score an own-goal but that was more to do with a wet match-ball sliding off the wrong side of his shin than it was a ‘mistake’ of some kind. Richie Smallwood and Grant Leadbitter gave us some much-needed energy, some midfield ‘bite’, in the middle of the pitch and there was a strong work-ethic throughout the team for the duration. We went on to score two more goals, both from set-plays; Kei Kamara kept up his impressive goals return with a proper striker’s goal at the back-stick and Ayala leapt like a salmon to get his considerable head on the end of a Leadbitter corner as Boro put the visitors firmly to the sword in the second-half.
There were other chances, too, and a bit more care from our attackers could’ve seen us score two or three more but let’s not be greedy. The bottom line is that we scored four, we played well generally, we created chances and we worked hard. But perhaps the most important thing to come out of the match is a clean-sheet; our first since the win at Charlton Athletic in August. Of course, Doncaster could’ve got themselves a goal but their lack of quality up front meant we held them, relatively speaking, at arm’s length for the majority of the game, and the biggest test for Boro will be keeping a clean-sheet against the better sides in the division but we did the job and we did it pretty well. Very well, in parts.
It was a ‘simplified’ Boro; we chose four defenders whose primary role in the team was to defend. We didn’t put extra pressure on the full-backs by asking them to provide extra width and get up and support the wingers and that allowed Adomah and Carayol to go out and play, to express themselves and try things in the opposition half without worrying about what was going on behind them. There was no real faffing about, no fussing, no ponderous passing it from side-to-side on the halfway-line and no sitting deep at the back trying to play out from there. We were more direct, more assertive and more aggressive and it felt like we’d decided to play to our strengths instead of worrying too much about what Paul Dickov’s troops may or may not do. It was refreshing. What was also refreshing was watching Marvin Emnes playing with a renewed vigour, playing his no.10 role with all the conviction of a man who is a shoo-in for a late call-up to the Dutch national squad for next year’s World Cup. It was the Emnes of two years ago and I’ve got everything crossed that he can keep that up for the rest of the season.
The danger, of course, is that we get too carried away with things and start thinking that Mark Venus has righted the wrongs of Mogga’s tenure. He hasn’t, not by any stretch. It’s not possible to do that in two, three, four training sessions and perhaps the players raised their collective games for the telly. Who knows. But what Venus did do, or set about trying to do, was send us out with a sense of purpose and send us out there to play with a much quicker tempo. The bottom line is that Mogga signed some good players for us, this game was an example of that, but couldn’t get the defence to work properly. It’s an easy thing to say, of course, but if Mark Venus can build on what we did here, if he can strengthen the defence further, work on our shape and perhaps add another loan-signing into the mix, then he has a very good chance of becoming the manager on a permanent basis because we have the quality to trouble any side in this division.
So, a 4-0 win, a clean-sheet, a good few chances created, a new centre-half heading one in on his debut, a crowd of over 20,000, a fantastic new banner on display courtesy of the Red Faction, Tony Mowbray’s banner held aloft for all the world to see at the start of the second-half and his name being sung with around twenty minutes to go… we couldn’t have asked for any more, could we. ‘The Spirit of Teesside’, on this evidence, is well and truly alive.
Up The Boro.