'The Corridor of Uncertainty'

Month: January, 2014

Middlesbrough 0 Wigan Athletic 0

I was up for this one, I really was. I’d primed the iPod with a little bit of Joy Zipper for the first stage of the walk down to the game and had some Bo Ningen ready for when the stadium appeared on the horizon. Not even the rain could dampen my enthusiasm for a game against the FA Cup holders under the lights. Indeed, I’d even done that thing you sometimes do when it’s raining on the way to a game and convinced myself there’d be some ‘zip’ on the grass so we’d be in for a cast-iron treat. Everything had come together, it seemed. Those feelings of anticipation and excitement lasted about seven minutes though, unfortunately, as it became clear, even at that early stage, that we were going to be in for an archetypal second-tier grind of a game where we were going to have to simply work hard and dig in for ninety minutes.

We’d picked a pretty forward-thinking team, at least on paper we had anyway, and gone with two strikers and two wingers as well as Leadbitter. It was a surprise to Curtis Main involved from the start but perhaps that says more about the fitness-levels of Kei Kamara than it does anything else, if we’re being honest. It appeared as if Main was going to try and set the tone of the game from the very first minute as he hurtled off towards Emmerson Boyce to charge down his clearance but it didn’t inspire anything too serious from the lads. Wigan soon settled into a relatively effective stride and despite not really creating anything of any note it was clear they were well-drilled and had better footballers than we do. That lass in central-midfield, Roger Espinoza, gave probably the best performance I’ve seen from an opposition midfielder at the Riverside this season and it was actually rather enjoyable to sit back and watch what they were trying to do. Uwe Rosler was barking his head off and doing some serious pointing at things as Wigan moved the ball around in leisurely fashion, though he must’ve been frustrated with how little Wigan created in front of goal.

As for the Boro, it almost seemed as if we knew we weren’t going to win it really early on so made sure we didn’t lose it. Ledesma tried to make things happen but it just wasn’t really his sort of night to be honest. What did for us, I think, was Wigan playing with such a high-line across the defence and then really condensing the midfield when they didn’t have the ball. They pushed us back and pushed the wingers right back on top of Friend and Varga, meaning that when we did have possession they were right in our faces and we had no real choice but to lump it in the general direction of Curtis Main. It was difficult to watch but you have to give Wigan credit, I think that’s only fair. We did have one or two sniffs of goal; Carayol managed to beat James Perch before cutting inside and drilling a shot wide of the target from twenty-odd yards and we had a header cleared off the line, or close to the line, though as it was at the other end of the ground I’m not sure whose header it actually was. It was probably Ayala. It’s always Ayala.

Just as the first-half was reaching it’s climax, disaster struck as Rhys Williams, who’d actually been having another decent game for us, seemed to lose his balance on the halfway-line before going down and staying down. Sometimes, you just ‘know’ when it’s a bad one. He barely moved and the stretcher and all the gear was called for, the brace, the other club doctor – you know, the older, slower one who ambles across the pitch like he knows there’s a brew waiting for him at the end of it. So that was that; Ben Gibson came on and put in a good performance for us but it’s bitterly disappointing to lose a first-team player with what looks to be a serious injury when the gaffer has just trimmed his squad right back to the quick but there you go.

The second-half was pretty much more of the same really; Wigan held the ball well and Espinoza’s influence on proceedings grew as time went by, though they still weren’t creating much. Karanka seemed to fancy taking the shackles off for a bit, throwing on Adomah on for an ineffective Emnes and we had a good five or six minute period of relative pressure following on from that – Ledesma found himself clear in the box but at an unforgiving angle so gave it to Main but he fluffed his lines and skewed his shot over the bar from ten yards. If ever a moment summed up the season so far in terms of our strikers then that was probably it. Not long after that Carayol whipped a decent cross in and Varga got behind their left-back but his pull-back was too cute for any of our lads to read so the chance went begging. Wigan were still neat and tidy and James McArthur brought a smashing save out of the effervescent Shay Given with about ten minutes to go before one of their lads invited Given to throw his cap over a header at goal just after. And that was it – the referee blew for time and everybody stood up and trudged out in an orderly fashion.

It’s been a tricky one to digest has this one because a part of me is really annoyed that the lads didn’t seem to believe they were capable of winning it, whereas another part is pleased we restricted an easy-on-the-eye side packed with top-level experience to so few opportunities and kept yet another clean-sheet. There were some clear positives, of course; Daniel Ayala’s head is a magnet for the ball on a ridiculous scale, George Friend’s steady improvement continues and the Red Faction simply refuse to entertain the idea of sitting down and do anything other than sing their heads off for the lads. You’ve got to admire them for that.

Anyway, I think it’s one of those games where I’ll consider it a good point once the dust has settled and we’ve added a striker or two to the squad but right now it’s all a little bit underwhelming round my way. Saturday afternoon and a trip to Doncaster Rovers can’t come soon enough…

He’s The Real Deal, Isn’t He?

I bloody love Aitor Karanka I do. There, I’ve said it. And I’ve said it because at this moment in time it feels right, it really does. I mean, it’s not very often I can sit here writing something about the Boro on the back of a 2-0 defeat to Leicester City of a miserable January afternoon, as well as needlessly torturing myself by watching three incredibly turgid FA Cup games on the telly, and still feel optimistic about the next few games of football but that’s what’s happening. If I had a hat I’d take it off, if I had a cap then I’d doff it. But I have neither of those things so I’ll have to make do with jotting this down(can you ‘jot’ on a keyboard?) instead.

Karanka being given the term ‘Head Coach’ as opposed to the more familiar role of ‘manager’ may have raised a couple of eyebrows at the time of his appointment as it brings with it it’s own set of connotations but if the role of a coach is to make his players better footballers and set about moulding a squad into an effective team then Karanka has, so far at least, more than delivered on those fronts. He and his staff have taken a bunch of seriously under-performing players and turned them into a well-drilled and effective outfit in a very short space of time, as well as turning an absolutely horrendous defence into a unit that has registered five clean-sheets in seven league games. They’ve taken us from the fringes of the relegation zone to the edges of the play-off places and reinstalled a collective confidence and feeling of genuine momentum.

Pure hard work on the training field coupled with an astute approach to tactics, as well as the signing of Shay Given, has brought about a sense of freshness to not just the team but the supporters too. Gone are the days when we watched the lads ambling around in the middle of the pitch going from side-to-side and back again, the days where the striker spent most of the game thirty-odd yards away from his team-mates whilst trying to get on the end of his own flick-ons. Though we generally enjoy less possession in games than we did prior to Karanka taking over, when we do have the ball we play with an intensity and with a strong sense of urgency about what we’re trying to do. And that is thoroughly refreshing to watch. The improvement in several members of the squad is remarkable, too.

Dean Whitehead is almost unrecognisable from the bloke we saw plodding around on the halfway-line wheezing his head off after hour or so of games and is now an integral part of a disciplined and efficient midfield unit. Emmanuel Ledesma has emerged from the shadows to become an important cog in our attacking armoury. George Friend is showing signs of maturity and doesn’t gallop off like a daft horse in a daft Western any more and Jozsef Varga has come into the side and added some much-needed tenacity to the problematic right-back spot. And Daniel Ayala has come through a shaky first few games and grown into a proper centre-half who enjoys getting his nut on stuff in his own box, and it’s been too long since we had one of those types in the ranks.

In terms of the collective, well the centre-halves no longer being camped on the edge of their own box with a holding-midfielder being perched right on top of them, as well as the full-backs being in the side primarily to defend, means we aren’t prone to being carved open at will any more. The full-backs have one job to do and can concentrate on that instead of having to offer the width in attack, instead of having to try and stretch the opposition. The attacking players on the flanks now have more space to operate in and can do their stuff without worrying about what’s going on behind them and Grant Leadbitter can enjoy not having to do three and four jobs simultaneously any more and focus on getting involved in the middle of the pitch whilst trying to drive the team forward.

But perhaps the most pleasing difference under Karanka, for me anyway, is that we now have a solid platform in place and a solid base from which to build in games. Now the defence has been tightened up the lads can go out and play and not worry about there being a serious traffic accident behind them, as was once the case. The players know what they’re supposed to be doing and go out and do it without over-thinking it. A subtle change from a 4-5-1-cum-4-3-3 to a more rigid 4-2-3-1 coupled with the burden of being in the side to do multiple jobs now lifted from certain players means we look like a proper football team for the first time in almost a year.

Of course, there is still a load of donkey-work for Karanka to plough through. Marvin Emnes, Lukas Jutkiewicz and Curtis Main have three league goals between them this season and Emnes and Jutkiewicz haven’t scored a goal between them since August. It’s quite incredible to think we are the third-highest scorers in the division when our two senior strikers haven’t hit the target for about five months but there you go. I’m still not sure what Emnes is supposed to be and the longer Jutkiewicz’s abysmal run goes on the more unlikely a goal from him seems. If we are serious about winning promotion, and going off what Karanka has said and done so far then you’d have to say that we are indeed deadly serious about winning promotion, then it’s more than likely that both of those players will have to be moved out and replaced.

But those problems aside, the improvements made over the course of the past five or six weeks or so are startling. This bloke just isn’t going to mess about and watching the way he’s operated in the transfer market this month provides adds even more weight to the feeling that he has a very strong ruthless streak. Richie Smallwood, Adam Reach, Luke Williams and Andy Halliday have all departed on loan as and despite my fondness for young Richie it’s incredibly hard to argue with rationale the rationale behind Karanka’s decision to send them out for a spell of regular first-team football.

Can it continue? Well I don’t see why not. We’ve adopted a seemingly simple yet ruthless approach to the way we go about things and we have enough quality in the side to trouble any team in this division. If we can improve on the strikers we have at the club then I don’t see any reason this charge up the table can’t continue until fag-end of proceedings and take us into the top-six. And when you consider where we were when Karanka took charge it’s absolutely incredible to think we can talk in those terms with any degree of seriousness.

As I say, I bloody love Aitor Karanka I do.

Middlesbrough 0 Hull City 2

Not many things in life come close to the magic of the FA Cup Third Round Round Three, do they; finding a book you’ve been after reading for ages in a charity store, perhaps. Or a steaming hot bowl of noodles when you sense a sniffle or two on the horizon. Ah, that’s a good one. I might have noodles tomorrow actually because I’ve been sat in a cold and damp football stadium most of the day and you can’t be too careful, can you. Anyway, there was definitely a bit of magic in the air round my house this morning as the prospect of an eminently winnable tie against Hull City loomed large. Arriving at the ground and seeing the two team-sheets today was always going to be interesting – if you’re into that sort of thing, which I am – because it seemed obvious that Steve Bruce would ‘rest’ several first-team regulars whilst Karanka had promised to field as strong a side as possible.

So we started with Dimi Konstantopoulos in goal on account of injuries and ineligibility respectively, with Rhys Williams in alongside Ben Gibson because Norwich were too tight to let us play Daniel Ayala, with Luke Williams in down the left-hand side at the expense of Albert Adomah meaning that, barring that particular change, Karanka had pretty much stayed true to his word I thought. Hull, however, had seemingly made about twenty-nine changes to the team that started their most recent league game, with a whole host of players I’d forgotten even existed coming into the side. Abdoulaye Faye was in at the back, a walking concrete outhouse if ever I saw one, Sheffield United’s Stephen Quinn got a game, Matty Fryatt was also picked but had to drop out just before kick-off for reasons as yet unknown. That bloke off The Football League Show’s son was playing at right-back and Aaron McLean started in attack. Oh and Paul McShane of Hi-De-Hi fame was playing as well.

It was pretty clear we were going to be in for a very long day after about four minutes had ticked by; we’d gone into ‘Huddersfield Town at home’ mode and were allowing Hull City to stroke the ball around like it was a FabergĂ© egg on a snooker table. Eight and nine minutes passed and we’d barely pressed them at all, we’d stood off and admired, yes admired, David Meyler pulling the strings in the middle of the pitch and when we did get a touch of it we gave it straight back. Hull came forward down our right and ran into trouble, allowing Ledesma to ambitiously try and build an attack from near his own corner flag but giving it away in a stupid area and leaving the defence exposed; it bobbled about a bit, it found it’s way to one of their lads on the edge of the box who had a pop at goal, it took a deflection off someone or other and landed at the feet of McLean, Konstantopoulos came out and went down like a Weetabix falling out of the box and McLean poked it over him. And to cap it off, Konstantopolous injured himself trying to block it. Crumbs everywhere.

From then on it was, well, it was frankly awful. We couldn’t keep hold of possession in Hull’s half for long enough to get near their box, we weren’t pressing them and/or tackling them, we weren’t doing anything other than being sloppy and generally chasing shadows. Hull held us firmly at arm’s length for the rest of the half, though we did have a couple of pops at goal courtesy of Emnes and Ledesma. One of them hit Row Q and Steve Harper coughed in the general direction of Ledesma’s effort, which was enough to keep it out of his net. Karanka sent four or five of his substitutes out to warm up after thirty minutes or so and it was pretty clear he was going to try and make big changes at half-time.

We brought Adomah and Jutkiewicz on for Ledesma and Luke Williams and, bizarrely enough, stuck Main out on the left-wing for the second-half. I’d say it’s pretty unlikely we’ll be seeing the lad deployed in that particular area of the field again, to be honest, but the one thing you can’t question is his desire; when things are going as badly as they did in this game, when nothing any of the lads try comes off and you can’t get near the opposition’s goal, the one thing you want to see is commitment to the cause and Main has that in abundance. I’ll be honest here – there isn’t much to say about the second-half at all, other than to say Hull’s lads wanted it more than ours did, which is pretty disappointing, they did a professional job on us and made the Boro look incredibly mediocre. Which is disappointing when you’ve gone into the game on the back of three wins and a draw from four games over Christmas. Their second goal came courtesy of Nick Proschwitz after decent play from George Boyd down our left, with the big daft Austrian bloke blasting the ball into the top corner despite being off-balance. It was a tidy finish and Hull deserved it, in truth. We huffed and puffed a little bit towards the end, with Main’s header from Adomah’s cross hitting the side-netting and Leadbitter forcing Harper to routinely tip the ball over his bar for an injury-time corner but it was far too little too late from our point of view. And that was that.

The most worrying aspects to come out of the game, for me, were: Jutkiewicz blowing out of his backside after fifty-three minutes(I know this because I consulted my timepiece when I spotted him gasping for breath after being forced to run quite quickly twice in quick succession), George Friend seemingly regressing to where he was about four weeks ago and being generally careless both with and without the ball throughout, Luke Williams showing little hunger to impress in what was a rare chance to play in our first-team, Marvin Emnes not being able to do anything at all without looking like a useless Dad in a dated sitcom and the fact that we’ve allowed Hull to progress in the cup without having to really work for it.

We’ll have Given and Ayala back for Blackpool next week, hopefully Woodgate too, as well as a boy on-loan from Chelsea apparently, so it’s not all doom and gloom but it certainly feels that way right now because we’ve surrendered our place in the cup so tamely. We’ve been showing signs of gradual improvement under Karanka but this one, despite it being against a top-flight outfit with a lot of experience on the pitch, was one of the worst we’ve seen this season – and there is quite a bit of competition in that regard – and thoroughly awful from start to finish. Hopefully it’s just a minor blip for us and we can get ourselves going again next week but we can’t hide from the fact that Karanka has a load of work to do on the team in the coming weeks and months if he is to rid us of this ‘soft centre’ that has seemingly dogged us for the past three or four years, if not longer.

Right, well, I don’t want to be too miserable so let’s end it there and move on to the next one. Onwards and upwards and all of that sort of thing.