'The Corridor of Uncertainty'

Month: October, 2013

Middlesbrough 4 Doncaster Rovers 0

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.

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Dazed & Confused

I think this must be about the fiftieth attempt at writing something to go on here since Sunday morning but, until now, things have felt too confused to able to put into words my thoughts and feeling towards what is going on with the Boro at this moment in time. I’ve thought about trying to work out exactly where things may have gone wrong for Tony Mowbray, where they’ve gone wrong for the team and how we try and put things right, and I’ve thought about how best to articulate exactly how much Tony Mowbray is a huge part of our club’s rich tapestry but it’s not been easy.

I won’t lie about it; I’d reached the conclusion that we should probably start looking to change things during the Huddersfield Town game a few weeks ago. The attitude and application, and the lack of intensity, from the players was, particularly in the first-half, thoroughly lamentable. It was another night where the same mistakes were being made on the turf with our defence being wide open constantly. The substitutions the gaffer made were baffling. The general feeling in-and-around the ground itself was as apathetic as I can remember it and, to be honest, I couldn’t see any way back for Mogga from that point on. I felt we’d entered ‘it’s only a matter of time’ territory, an area where a win, rightly or wrongly, was simply delaying the inevitable. A 4-1 win against Yeovil Town should’ve gone some way to dampening down the fears but it didn’t; it actually had the opposite effect. The way our defence was exposed time-and-time again, and by a side widely-expected to slip back into the third-tier this season, was both incredible and alarming to watch. It’s a bizarre feeling to come away from a 4-1 thinking that the manager is in serious trouble but that’s how I felt.

There are so many questions swirling around that I’ve never quite felt sure about where to begin; why were we making so many mistakes at the back and why hadn’t this been addressed over the summer? Why had we spent £2.5m(ish) on attacking players and not invested in the defence? Why don’t we have a captain in the side? Why do we have three senior right-backs and only one left-back on the books? Why had we signed so many central-midfielders when money was tight and the gaping holes at the back had been evident for months? I’ve still not been able to work any of those things out. And there are other questions, too; how on earth could a slide enter such an appalling run of form after Christmas and not be able to address it to the point where it spreads into the following season and into what is, to all intents and purposes, a brand new playing-squad? And why is Peter Kenyon going to our games? What is his role in things? Indeed, does he even have a role at the club?

Perhaps some of those questions will be answered in the coming days and months but what is important now is trying to look forwards. Of course, a club icon has departed and I’m gutted, I think most Boro fans are bitterly disappointed that we’ve had to admit defeat and start the process of moving on from Mogga, and it’s certainly a very difficult time for the club, but it’s also a time where we can perhaps allow ourselves to be a little excited about the future. Although there are genuine concerns with regards to exactly what’s gone on in 2013, Tony Mowbray has assembled the makings of a decent second-tier side and I think it’s fair to say that whoever takes over from him is only a couple of defensive adjustments away, whether they be loan-signings or just downright hard-work on the training pitch, from having side that can challenge at the right end of the table.

The hope would be that the man who takes the job on next will feel the benefit of all of the difficult, exhausting, gruelling and plain ugly work that Mowbray has had to plough through off the pitch and build on his admirable efforts. I don’t see us as a club that requires yet another ‘root and branch’ rebuild; I see it as a good job to be coming into, in truth, with the chance to work alongside a patient chairman who has restructured the club in such a way that we ought to be ahead of our rivals in terms of Financial Fair Play from next year onwards. There is also our hugely productive academy to dig into, a chance to work at a splendid training facility on a daily basis and a big stadium to work towards filling. To an outsider looking in, I’d say we’re a attractive proposition with lots of good things going on.

So right now I’m feeling pretty dazed and confused, certainly, but it does feel like I’m coming round from the knockout-blow of what has been a torturous few months for all concerned; for the club, for the supporters and, of course, for Tony Mowbray himself. There are feelings of relief that we won’t have to see the great man’s name being dragged through the mud any longer, that a line has been drawn under what was fast becoming a thoroughly frustrating affair, that my head and my heart are no longer in full-on conflict with each other and that we can start thinking about where we go from here.

There are questions to be answered, of course, but let’s not kid ourselves into thinking there is no hope for the club post-Mogga because I genuinely think we have the makings of a decent set-up in place. It’s a big shame that Tony Mowbray won’t be the man to lead us back into the top-flight but, if we do go on to bigger and better things in the coming months and years, then Mogga’s role in rebuilding the club won’t be forgotten at my end, that’s for sure.

Up The Boro.

Middlesbrough 4 Yeovil Town 1

It’s a strange feeling to come away from a game in which your side has won 4-1 courtesy of some really lovely football, with countless shots at goal(twenty-two, as it happens), registering their first home win of the season in the process, and not feel entirely comfortable with what you’ve just watched but that’s exactly how I’m feeling at the moment. Chuffed we’ve won, chuffed with most of the attacking play and chuffed we didn’t buckle after yet another horrendous start but the state of the defence at the moment is providing ample reason to worry.

We went with what was a genuine 4-3-3 system, with Emnes in for Carayol and Kamara shifted to the right-hand side with Adomah moving over to the left. Admittedly, when I saw the team-sheet I was surprised to see Emnes in ahead of Jutkiewicz and I did do a little moan in my head but I was more than prepared to wait and see how we started the game before reaching any conclusions. The immediate difference, for me, was that the midfield was further up the pitch from the very start of the game and that allowed to players on the flanks to be right up alongside Emnes. The early exchanges were very tame but at least we weren’t allowing Yeovil Town to strut around the pitch and feel their way into the game like we did with Bournemouth and Huddersfield Town.

The two or three minutes of satisfaction I felt at this change in mentality, however, were soon shat all over when Rhys Williams inexplicably allowed an innocuous-looking punt forward to bounce instead of putting his foot through it; Liam Davis pounced on the loose ball to race clear and tuck away without too much fuss. There was a bit of booing in the stands, like people feared the worst, the absolute worst, but the players deserve a lot of credit for fighting their way back into it so quickly after what was a truly dreadful goal to concede.

We soon equalised through Grant Leadbitter and went on to pretty much dominate the half, indeed we went on to dominate the game really, to all intents and purposes, though for all of the good stuff we were playing we were still all-over-the-show at the back. Again. Without being disrespectful to Yeovil, I think it’s pretty safe to assume that a side possessing a touch more quality would’ve had a field day against us. And it’s hard to get too excited about the victory, the performance as an attacking unit, when your defence is as bad, as sloppy, as ours is. It’s the same issues, time and again, and if we’re serious about making a real go of things this season then the manager has to sort it out and he has to do it soon. We seem to say it every week.

Not long after we’d forged an equaliser, Dean Whitehead, for a split-second at least, allowed himself to be possessed by the spirit of Xavi and threaded a quite exquisite through-ball down the left flank for George Friend to gallop onto. Friend burst into the area and was brought down to give us one of the most blatant penalties you’ll ever see. Again, though, the feelings of dread returned upon seeing it was Grant Leadbitter who picked the ball up to take the spot-kick. Unsurprisingly, he missed it, with Wayne Hennessey tipping it onto the post, but fortunately for us Adomah was on hand to stick away the rebound and make it 2-1. It was a bit more open that it should’ve been, from our point of view, after that but we went into the break with a 2-1 lead in the bank and on the back of creating two or three other decent chances to add to our lead.

The second-half was almost a carbon copy of the first; an early goal, this time courtesy of a lovely strike from distance from Man of the Match Jacob Butterfield, put Boro in a commanding position but still the defensive frailties meant we were never as comfortable as our attacking display ought to have merited. Yeovil plugged away and struck the post themselves, and credit to them for continuing to try and play football, but we looked like scoring every time we went forward and Kei Kamara put the icing on the cake when he got his nut firmly on the end of a Muzzy Carayol corner and sent not only the ball into the net but Hennessey as well. It was the least Kamara deserved, having hit the woodwork in the first-half and been a constant threat to the opposition throughout. From then on, we saw the game out, we looked like we were enjoying ourselves in possession and we could’ve had a couple more goals if we’d been slightly more ruthless in-and-around the box.

From an attacking point of view, we were very good. Very good indeed. After going a goal down so a early, and given our current circumstances in terms of form and confidence, it would’ve been pretty easy for the players to buckle under the pressure and not take responsibility for getting us back into it. The way we fought back and won the game was impressive. But, as I said earlier, we can’t go on defending like this and it’s a shame to leave a 4-1 win and worry about what’s going at the back instead of being able to fully enjoy what’s going on up front.

Rhys Williams was as poor as I’ve seen him; he’s making really basic mistakes and he’s making them with alarming frequency. Frazer Richardson doesn’t know what Williams is going to do both with and without the ball, meaning the opposition can slide stuff between them, or play stuff in behind them, any which way they like to be honest, almost at will at times and they look ragged as a pair. George Friend was his usual self; lovely to watch marauding forward towards the box but caught out by simple balls either down the flank or inside him. Dean Whithead is supposed to offer us more ‘protection’ but he seems to struggle to know what his exact role is sometimes. Butterfield and Leadbitter play more advanced roles, meaning Whitehead is sometimes expected to do the work of two or three men simultaneously as a move breaks down for whatever reason. There is no cohesion, leadership or organisation back there and it’s going to ruin the season if it isn’t addressed immediately. Even Jason Steele was shaky too, not collecting relatively straight-forward crosses and not seeming sure of himself generally.

Despite the criticisms of the defence, it’s worth pointing out that Ben Gibson had another very solid game at centre-half and did absolutely nothing wrong at all. In fact, it is Gibson who seems to be taking it upon his young shoulders to be the organiser, the talker, the one who takes real responsibility when it comes to making sure the defenders around him are doing what is required of them. But the worry with him is that he will miss out when Woodgate is back fit because the gaffer won’t leave Williams out. If that happens then it would be a big shame, not just for Gibson but also for the team as a whole. To be frank, I’m not sure Williams’ form merits him a place in the side at the moment so him having the captaincy is something that becomes more and more baffling with every passing game.

Anyway, a win was imperative and we got it, and all we can hope is that the manager either rectifies these defensive issues by way of a well-timed loan-signing or by having the lads in for extra training sessions in the afternoons. I’m not really too optimistic about a loan-signing as the gaffer doesn’t really seem to be seeing what everyone else seems to be seeing with Williams; maybe it’s time to take him out of the firing line and move him into midfield, or sit him on the bench for a few games and let him have a little think about things.

I think the last little segment should go to Jacob Butterfield; we are certainly seeing why he was considered such an exciting prospect when at Barnsley, with his range of passing, his first-touch and his handful of tricks and step-overs, his always being prepared to play the ball forwards and for his fearlessness when it comes to taking the initiative for his team. I have a feeling that he is going to become a very, very important player for the Boro in the coming years and long may his good form continue.

Middlesbrough 1 Huddersfield Town 1

Once again, Boro went with what we would all love to be a genuine 4-3-3 formation but what is, in truth, a fairly cautious 4-5-1 system. It’s a system that kind of saps the energy out of you before you’ve even settled down into your seat because it’s clear, absolutely clear, that this particular system just isn’t working for us at the moment. But, obviously, the lads have been working hard on it with the coaching staff in training and you take each game as it comes, as they say, and you hope that the next game will be different.

But this one wasn’t. In fact, it was worse. The start we made to the game was borderline embarrassing; a complete lack of intensity, from anywhere, or anyone, out there on the grass meant Huddersfield Town could stroke the ball around, they could get their foot on it and have a look around, play into midfield and back again, bring everyone into it and all have a touch or three, check their watch, stick the kettle on. They were basically doing whatever they liked whilst the Boro just sat off and watched.

The players didn’t seem to realise we were at home. The lack of tackles going in was absolutely bizarre to witness, almost surreal at times. Why were we letting Huddersfield Town come to the Riverside and play like Arsenal would play in a testimonial? We’d won one league game from nine before kick-off so to come out and show such a lack of intensity, such a lack of urgency, was quite unbelievable.

To be fair, Huddersfield didn’t really create anything of note. In James Vaughan they have a very good striker, quite possibly too good for Division Two but his injury troubles mean he’s down here and he’s doing the business. Their game-plan seemed to be to keep hold of it, draw us out a few yards and then either get it to Sean Scannell or Adam Hammill, or try and thread something in between Williams and Richardson for Vaughan to latch onto. As I say, they didn’t create too much stuff, certainly nothing in the way of a clear-cut chance to test Jason Steele, but there was a definite feeling of dread whenever their wingers got the ball and made their way towards our defensive-third of the pitch. One of their lads who is definitely worthy of a mention is Oscar Gobern; a tall, languid midfielder with a sweet left-foot and a very cool head on him when in possession. Admittedly, our lack of pressure on him, his team-mates and the ball in general made him look closer to being West Yorkshire’s answer to Ganso than he probably is but his performance is definitely worth noting down for future reference.

It wasn’t until the twenty-eighth minute that Alex Smithies in the Huddersfield goal got his hands on the ball, getting down low to collect a relatively tame effort from Muzzy Carayol from just outside the box. Twenty-eight minutes for our first spark, our first proper shot of the evening. From then on it ‘kind of’ got us going but, in truth, it didn’t really get us going very much. It was just that it was almost impossible for us to be as lacklustre going into the remainder of the half as we had been up until Muzzy had his pop at goal. A couple more shots followed, one from Carayol and one from Kamara, and Richardson got away down the right but his chip towards the goal was tipped over the bar. Adomah went close but seemed to be denied by a last-ditch tackle by one of their defenders. Carayol then seemed to forget what he was supposed to be doing completely and was nudged off the ball with relative ease by their midfielders on several occasions towards the end of the half. We had one or two bits and bobs after that but nothing concrete.

The half-time whistle went and, almost unbelievably, the lads were applauded off the pitch. I respect that everyone is entitled to their opinions and whatnot, and I always try to look for the positives with the Boro, but I couldn’t believe the crowd had been so generous with them after what I thought was an abysmal first-half showing.

The second-half began and it was clear that the gaffer had said his piece because we were further up the pitch, we at least tried to pressurise them in-and-around their own defensive-third but we found it incredibly difficult to create anything by way of a genuine chance on goal. Mark Robins cottoned onto the obvious raising of the tempo from Boro and countered it by sending on Danny Ward for Sean Scannell. Steele seemed to be caught out by a deep cross and it was Ward’s shot that rebounded off the post for Gobern to drill in via a heavy deflection off James Vaughan. Admittedly, it was at the other end of the stadium so it does feel like something of a blur but I think it will go down as Vaughan’s goal. Whether Steele was genuinely culpable with the cross is something I’m not sure of also.

Mogga sent on Jutkiewicz not long after but, frustratingly, decided against pairing him alongside Kamara and instead moved Kamara to the left-hand side of the pitch and had Leadbitter playing just off Jutkiewicz when we were in possession. This was made all the more baffling when Leadbitter kept dropping back into the midfield to look for the ball as it meant that we were still, to all intents and purposes, playing with a solitary striker in a home game in which we were trailing. But we soldiered on(probably a wounded soldier, mind, with asthma), we endeavoured to try and make something happen and managed to create a couple of little things in their box, Jutkiewicz and Kamara both going relatively close.

But what we seemed to do, more than anything else, was move the ball from side-to-side, and then backwards, and then back into midfield, and then from side-to-side again before somebody just punted it up in the vague direction of Jutkiewicz and/or Kamara. This went on almost all night. We have two wingers in the side and yet they very rarely get into a position to put a cross into the area. I like ‘possession football’ but it has to have something other than a long-ball at the end of it, it has to have a purpose, but so many times it achieved nothing of note and just found it’s way back to Jason Steele or one of our central-defenders and the whole pattern started again. It can be very frustrating to watch at times.

Finally, an equaliser came and it was the one Boro player to emerge from the game with any genuine credit, youth-team graduate Ben Gibson, making his first senior start at the Riverside, looking like he was on stepladders as he headed home a Grant Leadbitter corner. The relief was tangible but, as we’ve seen so many times with Boro this year, the realisation that we now had something to hold onto submerged the team. A little bit of trepidation entered our collective game and, instead of using the momentum gained through scoring an equaliser, it was Huddersfield who had a little spell of pressure. Fortunately for us, they didn’t create anything of any real interest but you do get the feeling that a little more care and incision from their lads at that time would’ve probably resulted in another goal for them.

We calmed things down a little and, as the clock ticked down and the supporters trickled through the exits, we launched a couple of attacks of our own. We did manage to hit the woodwork at the death, which kind of sums everything up. It would’ve been an undeserved winner though, in my opinion, because although Huddersfield didn’t create too much, and we’d had much more of the ball than them by the end of the game, and Smithies was called into action more than Steele was over the course of the ninety-minutes, I just don’t think we did enough to merit the three points.

I don’t like to be too harsh on the players, or Tony Mowbray, but that was as poor a performance, especially in the first-half, as I’ve seen from us in a long time. As I said earlier, the complete lack of intensity at the start set the tone and we just never seemed to recover properly. Our game was littered with long, hopeful punts up the field to a striker who was trying to get on the end of his own flick-ons at times. It was full of poor passing and sloppiness. We spent what feels like hours all bunched just inside our own half of the pitch passing it between ourselves with no real purpose and we emerged from the game having still failed to register a win on our own turf. It was a bad night, and we can’t hide away from the fact that things aren’t working for us at the moment.

It’s Yeovil Town next, on Saturday, and we’ve got to get better. There is an air of both desperation and inevitably around the team at the moment and if we start Saturday’s game like we started this one then I think we’re going to be in for a very long afternoon. And a very long international break, too.