'The Corridor of Uncertainty'

Month: November, 2013

Middlesbrough 1 Bolton Wanderers 0

As soon as I opened my eyes this morning, clocking the early-morning slither of sunshine making its way into the bedroom on account of the lazily-closed blinds as I did, I knew it was going to be a good day. Sometimes, you just know. The aforementioned slither of sunshine allowed me to venture out into the garden to smoke a cigarette(a mistake, in hindsight, as you shouldn’t be smoking before noon should you, not these days, what with everything that’s going on) and contemplate what Aitor Karanka’s first home game as Boro’s Head Coach might bring. And Shay Given as well! Wow, Saturdays just don’t start better than that do they. Even the pre-match stroll through North Ormesby felt better, more exciting somehow, littered as it was with fellow match-goers instead of the usual assortment of startled old people and stray animals.

Once the pre-match welcome of Mr Karanka had settled down, and the referee had taken care of the relevant admin, it became immediately clear that both sides had set themselves up with pretty much identical formations; we both had four men across the back-line, three men in the middle of the field with two pacey lads on the flanks and one orthodox striker. It made for an almost nondescript first-half, if truth be told, with neither side making anything like a genuine chance on goal and neither goalkeeper having to do anything more than collect the odd cross or boot it up the field every now and then. Both teams were ponderous in possession, faffing on and on as they did, with Jacob Butterfield unable to find the space to bring Adomah and Carayol into the game for us and Darren Pratley doing likewise for Bolton. And even when Butterfield did find a yard of space he seemed unable to get it under control and any momentum, albeit it relatively laboured momentum, we’d built up was lost. It was half where almost nothing happened, and perhaps the most interesting moment came when the whistle went for half-time and we got Franck Queudrue out for a round of applause.

I think the things that stood out, for me anyway, during the first-half was the number of forceful tackles our lads put in; Rhys Williams made three or four really strong tackles, as did Grant Leadbitter, and that was a refreshing change to what’d gone on in previous games at home, where we’d allowed teams to settle into their stride and start zipping the ball around our immaculate surface a la 90s Milan. We looked more drilled, more professional, more solid, and we gave the impression that we were doing much more to defend our goal than we had been in previous games. The defence was more of a unit, as was the midfield, from a defensive point of view, and keeping things as tight as possible, for as long as possible, before bringing on an Emnes or a Main to try and pinch it seemed to be the order of the day.

The second-half started in much the same fashion, with no real attacking quality on display despite the best efforts of those involved. Indeed, it was Bolton who started to grow in belief as the minutes ticked-by, though, again, they didn’t create anything of note. Karanka had seen enough, it seemed, and decided to bring on Curtis Main for Muzzy Carayol. I was surprised at the time because I expected Emnes to come on first but it turned it to be a relative master-stroke, of sorts, as he pushed Kamara out onto the left-hand side and put Main through the middle. It was as if he was giving Bolton a few minutes to ponder on what we’d changed and once they’d got to grips with it he immediately replaced the ineffective Butterfield with Emnes. This was the change that definitely made the difference for us, as Emnes drifted around between their defence and midfield, with none of their lads seeming completely sure of who was supposed to be picking him up, and his movement and a couple of exquisite first-touches and turns generated some real positivity for us.

It was Emnes who managed to turn his man in the area with about ten minutes left to play, with his progress halted by an agricultural-looking tackle from Tim Ream; it was a moment reminiscent of a young Joseph Job turning his man in Cardiff all those years ago before he too was brought down in crude fashion. It was Leadbitter, who’d not long since played Shay Given into trouble courtesy of a dreadful back-pass, who did what all good professionals do and stepped up to the mark to coolly send Andy Lonergan the wrong way. The relief was palpable, but so too was the feeling that we would somehow contrive to throw it away at the death, as has been our way so often this season. It came as no surprise, then, when Leadbitter and Williams were involved in a daft little mix-up in a semi-dangerous position which resulted in Williams hacking down his man to give away a penalty with two or three minutes left on the clock. You could sense it coming, as soon as Williams made the decision to go to ground you knew it was coming and the referee had little choice but to blow for a spot-kick. But we knew he would miss, we all knew it. I was absolutely certain that the effervescent Shay Given was going to save it, I even said as much to the stranger sitting next to me, but it turned out we didn’t need any heroics from Given as Beckford took his penalty with all the finesse of a blindfolded Chrissy Waddle. What made that moment even more satisfying was that Beckford should’ve probably had a penalty earlier on in the half, when Williams seemed to carelessly bundle him over and into our net as a cross came in.

So, we held on. A win is a win, we probably deserved it really, in truth; Gibson, Main and Friend all had decent efforts on goal, Kamara won almost everything in the air, Emnes caused them no end of problems in the ten or fifteen minutes immediately after coming off the bench and Adomah whipped a great cross in that was begging to be stuck away not long after half-time. Curtis Main did himself no harm at all with a nice little cameo and Ben Gibson looked more assured than Daniel Ayala has done during the last two outings. And when Bolton did try and step it up in the last few minutes, we remained pretty calm about our business and did what needed to be done.

Two shots on target from both teams sums the game up; whether it was a genuinely poor game or whether it was just two average second-tier sides simply cancelling each other out for very long periods is open to debate, but the vital thing to emerge from proceedings was that we’d dug in and come out 1-0 winners in the sort of game we’d have probably lost six to eight weeks ago. That the game itself didn’t live up to expectations in terms of quality couldn’t really be of any less relevance right now as we did what we had to do. And that’s a huge positive for Karanka and the lads to work with as they build towards Wednesday evening’s 3-2 win at Steve McClaren’s Derby County…

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Bilbao Did Gibbo Pull This One Off?

Wow, we actually went and did it! It’s fair to say I’m pretty chuffed right now, sitting here with a chai tea on the go and a rather resplendent cardigan(navy blue Marks & Sparks, as it happens), idly day-dreaming about what the appointment of Aitor Karanka might lead to for us Boro fans. I fancied something like this, I really did, but I never thought that the chairman would go out and make it happen. And that we’ve been able to attract a coach of the stature of Karanka to the club, and to the area, speaks volumes about the ambition and the passion that our chairman still has for Middlesbrough Football Club. He deserves immense credit for pulling this one off, of that there can be no doubt. If this doesn’t reignite the enthusiasm for the club amongst the Teesside public then what will?

That this appointment feels like something of a throwback to the halcyon days of Ravanelli, Juninho and Boksic, oh and throw in a Hasselbaink and a Viduka as well eh, let’s go mad, it’s late, well that isn’t the main reason I’m feeling so excited. What excites me most about this appointment is the prospect of a coach such as Karanka being afforded the opportunity to implement his own footballing philosophy on all aspects of the club, from the youth teams and up into the first-team environment. It’d be nice to think he’ll be looking to have his teams, regardless of age-group, playing a style of football that is consistent across all levels. I was always of the opinion that this was something Tony Mowbray would try to build towards but, for one reason or another, it didn’t really seem to materialise. But I’m optimistic that Karanka can really reinvigorate the whole place and it’d be incredibly difficult to argue against the idea that the club was in desperate need of a new set of ideas on the training field.

Of course, he is going to need time and patience from everyone connected with the club whilst he assesses what’s what in terms of his playing squad and sets about implementing his style of play. And this is a team that needs some serious coaching, of that there is no doubt at all. The deficiencies in our game, and in our squad, are there for all to see and any new manager coming into the club at this moment in time would have a pretty big job on in terms of improving us as a defensive unit. Quite what he will make of Grant Leadbitter, Seb Hines and Faris Haroun is open to debate, but you’d think that we possess just about enough quality, certainly in an attacking sense, to be able to cobble something half-decent together whilst the new gaffer works on something more his own in the mid-to-longer-term.

The worry, of course, would be that some of the lads just aren’t going to be good enough to do what Karanka will ask of them and that the playing-staff will inevitably undergo something of an overhaul in the next twelve months. But, if we’re being honest about it, how many of the current squad would we genuinely miss if they were to be sold in either of the next two transfer windows? As long as any funds raised through shipping a handful of them out are given to Karanka to strengthen the team as he would like then not too many of them, I imagine. But that’s not something for now, let’s not be too downbeat on the lads and let’s see which ones can seize the opportunity a new manager coming in will give them.

Perhaps the most intriguing, tantalising even, aspect of Karanka’s appointment is being allowed to wonder about the style of football he may choose to employ, which sort of ‘template’ he will use as he looks to stamp his authority onto the team. Will he play a possession-based, wear-the-opposition-down, defend-from-the-front sort of game, such as the one the Spanish national team use to great effect, or will he be a little more pragmatic and concentrate on fostering a more Mourinho-esque ‘win at all costs’ mentality? Will he adopt more of an Athletic Bilbao sort of system, such as the one deployed by Marcelo Bielsa a year or two back, with a team that presses high up the pitch, a team that was, to all intents and purposes, a ‘gung-ho’ attacking outfit that relied on collective fitness, speed and great technical ability. Who knows, he may have something entirely original up his sleeve for us to sit back and enjoy. So long as he organises his teams defensively and sends the lads out with a sense of purpose then I won’t be too fussed, but it’d be nice to think we could become just as easy-on-the-eye as Bielsa’s Bilbao side in the mid-to-longer-term. Or is that just the wild-eyed optimism talking?

Perhaps this is one of the most beautiful things about this particular appointment; the fact that none of us really know what kind of football he’s going to play, which components of the current squad are going to fit in with whichever template Karanka decides to work with and what sort of footballer he’s going to be looking to bring in to the club in January and beyond. But it feels big, good, special. It’s a step into the unknown and it’s something radical. It’s the kind of feeling you just wouldn’t get from appointing a Pulis or a Holloway, or any of the other boring candidates trotted out ad nauseam the moment yet another poor sod takes a tumble off the managerial merry-go-round. No, I’m happy with this one. Very happy indeed. The scrappy 1-1 draw at Leeds on Saturday week can’t come soon enough…

Middlesbrough 2 Watford 2

Firstly, I would start by saying I wasn’t much looking forward to this one having been caught in a torrential downpour on the way to the game and then having to stand about in it for an hour or so selling fanzines. My coat isn’t waterproof, you see, and once it’s wet it stays wet for a good couple of hours after so the chances of me catching a cold were quite high. But I digress. Ah, one further digression would be to add that I got stuck in the turnstiles on the way in, what with me lumbering about with a big bag of fanzines on my shoulder, and had to be helped out by a steward. That there was a minute’s silence in progress whilst this was happening served only to compound the misgivings I had at the time.

Anyway, the game started and I could see Mark Venus had reverted back to the 4-4-2 he deployed to great effect against Doncaster Rovers a fortnight back, with Gibson and Carayol returing to the side at the expense of Friend and Varga. Hines was in for Woodgate as well, so I figured it safe to assume that El Woody had suffered a rare injury. Watford were going with their Continental 5-3-1-1-cum-3-4-2-1 – possibly, it was difficult to be certain about what they were playing in truth – with ex-Boro loanee Josh McEachran collecting splinters on the visitor’s bench. It was a fairly ordinary opening to the match, with neither side being able to string anything of any great quality together in the first twenty or so minutes and it felt every bit the average, run-of-the-mill second-tier affair. Watford seemed intent on feeding it into Troy Deeney’s neck or Fernando Forestieri’s dancing shoes and building from there, whilst Boro concentrated on getting it into Adomah and Kamara as quickly, and as often, as they possibly could but to no real avail in terms of creating anything of note.

It took until just before the half-hour mark for the game to come to life, with Marvin Emnes turning his man for the first time and feeding Kei Kamara who in turn slid a lovely little slide-rule ball through for Rhys Williams to gallop onto; rather than shooting himself, which seemed like the only thing he could do at that moment in time, he executed a delightful back-heel for Boro goal-machine Albert Adomah to absolutely thwack past Manuel Almunia. It was a sublime goal of genuinely high quality and it was exactly what the game needed. But Boro couldn’t keep any real pressure on and Watford gradually began to work their way back into things, with the clearly-too-good-for-this-division Forestieri at the heart of everything positive they put together. They slid a couple of balls down the sides and behind our defenders but never got on the end of anything, though the signs pointing to a Watford equaliser were quite clearly on the horizon and, when they did score, it was the kind of goal we’ve seen our lads give away time and time again this campaign. A long and hopeful ball forward managed to catch our entire back-line out and the big old unit that is Troy Deeney latched onto it and slotted it past a woefully exposed Jason Steele.

The second-half started in much the same fashion, with Watford content to stroke it around until they could get their front players involved and the Boro content to, well, continue to do whatever it was we were trying to do. Adomah and Carayol struggled to make any real impact, with the former wasting a couple of decent chances to skin their defender when one-on-one with him and the latter seemingly lacking the confidence to try and beat his man en route to the byline. It was a disjointed half, a half full of misplaced passes, aimless long-balls up to Kamara and the familiar feeling that the opposition would definitely score more goals on account of our shakiness at the back. It was clear we were having problems in the middle of the field, with Watford having an extra man in there, and Leadbitter and Smallwood struggling to impose themselves on the game with any degree of meaning. Emnes was crowded out to the point where he pretty much disappeared from proceedings altogether and the game was crying out for Jacob Butterfield to be introduced as quickly as possible. Quite why it took Mark Venus almost thirty-five minutes, and a Watford goal, to bring Butterfield on is something of a mystery but on he came, with his team now trailing after Daniel Ayala’s mistake allowed the ever-impressive Forestieri to nip in and prod past Steele not long after the seventy minute mark.

Butterfield’s eventual introduction brought about a return to the sort of thing we were doing regularly under Tony Mowbray; a central-midfield trio knocking it from side-to-side for a bit before giving up and clipping a hopeful one in the vague direction of Kamara. Watford looked threatening on the counter as the Boro tried to push forwards, but it was us who almost scored the next goal via a Kei Kamara header, which Almunia did well to block at close-range. With two minutes remaining, Seb Hines’ hamstring went-a-walking and, bafflingly, with the team 2-1 down at home and just a couple of minutes plus stoppage time left to play, the stand-in gaffer brought George Friend on instead of Lukas Jutkiewicz. It felt like we’d missed a trick but we persevered until the death and finally pinched an equaliser courtesy of yet another terrific leap from Ayala to nod home Leadbitter’s corner. We’d got out of jail at the death but Watford’s profligacy in front of goal and a little bit of spirit from the lads means it will probably go down as a pretty decent point for us. We also had strong grounds for a penalty when a Watford defender seemed to use his hand to control, or block, the ball on the edge of his own six-yard box. The referee, something of a fusspot all day long, never gave it despite the huge appeals.

So it was a scrappy one, a pretty poor one, one where we again failed to apply sufficient pressure onto a side that likes to pass it, one where we wasted so much of the ball it’s kind of annoying and frustrating in equal measure, but we’ve scrambled a point and showed a touch of something resembling a collective spirit and that’s to be commended, I suppose, but maybe not just yet on account of it only ending a few short hours ago. The lack of cohesion on show was worrying, as was the ever-creaky defence, as well as the lack of genuine bite in midfield(Leadbitter, as harsh as it may be, deserves to be singled out for criticism despite teeing-up the equaliser – he was way, way under par today). It’s another day where I’m left scratching my head because we were so poor yet Watford, one of the better sides in the division, couldn’t manage to beat us and we scored a genuinely fantastic opener, a goal which showcased the quality we have in the side in an attacking sense, and yet the deficiencies in the team are there for all to see.

We are an incredibly frustrating team to watch at the moment and I think it’s absolutely imperative we have our new gaffer, and his staff, in place as quickly as possible if we are going to address our shortcomings in time to be able to make an impact on the business end of the table. As things stand, sixteenth place feels about right but we’ve got to be doing better than that, haven’t we?