Looking back, in hindsight, I probably shouldn’t have watched the first-half of the Liverpool – Arsenal game before I left the house for this one. I really shouldn’t. Not because I didn’t enjoy watching Liverpool play some really scintillating football for half-an-hour or so, but because it encouraged my mind to wander towards believing that we might see something similar, relatively speaking, at the Riverside. Given the way we play under Karanka being 4-0 ahead at the break seemed highly unlikely but that’s what happens sometimes, isn’t it. You get carried away and convince yourself that this one will be different, somehow, which isn’t always a sensible thing to do with the prospect of a home game against Blackburn Rovers on a cold and blustery February afternoon firmly on the horizon.
To be fair to us though, it was a little bit different from the Wigan Athletic game in terms of how we approached it. Danny Graham was in for his first start for us and Carayol and Ledesma were selected, with Leadbitter playing just off Graham – or at least I think that’s where he was supposed to be playing – and Nathaniel Chalobah making his home debut alongside Deano in the engine-room. Blackburn went with Rudy Gestede and Jordan Rhodes up top, Schürrle one of the more dangerous partnerships in the division, with Tom Cairney patrolling the halfway-line looking to drive their lads forward whenever he could. The best Yorkshire pudding storage facility this side of David Dunn, Paul Robinson, kept goal for them and their left-back, Tommy Spurr, was wearing a motorcycle helmet.
We started okay, as did they, but the game never really got going until the fifteen or so minutes mark – Carayol and Friend began to link up very nicely down our left-hand side and by the end of the half Blackburn really couldn’t cope with it, with Carayol’s pace and trickery a particular highlight of the half. We had a few digs from distance but Paul Robinson was relatively untroubled, though he did get down smartly to his right-hand side to claw out a header from one of our lads – quite possibly Ben Gibson, though it was difficult to see for certain who headed it from the other end of the stadium. There was a thirty-minute period of the first-half where I actually enjoyed watching us play, which is in stark contrast to the Wigan game a couple of weeks back, as Carayol charged forward at every opportunity and beat his man, Todd Kane, every single time. So good was Carayol in that first-half that Kane was replaced by Rovers gaffer Gary Bowyer at half-time.
Despite Carayol’s best efforts, and as the half wore on the efforts of George Friend too, the most noticeable problem for the Boro is that we only had one man in the box for the vast majority of the game. This has gone on for quite some time, of course, but considering our lack of goals of late it’d be nice to think we’d be prepared to show just a little bit more ambition at times, especially when playing at home. If Graham ‘gambles’ and hurtles across towards the near-post then there is nobody behind him to follow things up, which is frustrating to watch a lot of the time. When Graham delayed his movement in order to try and read what sort of cross Carayol was going to deliver then that didn’t work either because it’s nigh-on impossible to know what Carayol is going to do with the ball, so much so that not even Muzzy seems to know what he’s going to do a lot of the time.
What may have helped today was if Grant Leadbitter was prepared to actually step foot inside the Blackburn penalty-area, which is something he failed to do all day. If the player designated to play the ‘no.10’ position, the bloke who links everything together, isn’t going to get himself into the box a few times then what chance has the striker got if he’s in there on his own? Not much, I’d say, and that’s how it went for us. I’m not sure Leadbitter has the legs and the overall quality needed to play this kind of role for us successfully if I’m being honest, which isn’t necessarily a criticism of him but maybe more a sense of frustration that we didn’t push on a bit more generally. Leadbitter was afforded the luxury of having two blokes sitting behind him, mopping things up and keeping things ticking over, so if he isn’t going to burst into the box in that kind of set-up then I don’t think he ever will.
Anyway, the second-half kind of dragged on a bit towards the end. Danny Graham lamped one forward for Carayol to chase and his pace caught their lads out, presenting Muzzy with a one-on-one against Robinson but he lacked the composure needed to stick it away and played it straight against the big Yorkshireman. Albert Adomah came off the bench and launched a lovely left-footed drive towards the Rovers goal but it was a bit too central, perhaps, and Robinson tipped it over and out for a corner. The corners seemed to mount up a bit but you’d have to give Blackburn credit and say that, by and large, they dealt with them pretty well for the duration. Kamara and Main were sent on late on but didn’t really have enough time to make an impact, though a couple of things did stand out – one was Main being deployed on the left-wing, which is bizarre, and also the outstanding cross that one of our lads sent into the box at the death. To me it almost seemed as though Main was kind of ‘hiding’ behind the defender, he didn’t really read the cross at all, when a more seasoned striker may just have taken a chance and nipped across to get his header in. Ian Baird, for example, would’ve ripped the net out with a chance like that.
The referee then brought the curtain down on yet another 0-0 draw and we all trudged off and into a load of rain and icy wind with loads to contemplate. There are positives for us; Carayol played very well indeed, though he did tire towards end of it. George Friend’s marked improvement continued and there were signs today that he is starting to bring the attacking aspect of his game back into the equation, only now he’s doing it in a much more disciplined fashion. Ben Gibson was, yet again, very solid and gets better with every passing match. Dean Whitehead was solid again, Chalobah kind of coasted through it but he did a few decent things(I’d like to see him be more assertive, in truth, though maybe that will come with playing more games for us). Shay Given barely had a save to make as Blackburn created next-to-nowt all match, which is testament to the way we defended as a unit. Varga was solid again and I do like watching a player with that sort of tenacity.
But there are also negatives; Woodgate looked a little slow at times and needed Gibson to cover for him on occasion, Leadbitter looked out-of-sorts playing a role that his game isn’t really suited to and most of what Ledesma tried didn’t come off. These are only slight negatives, certainly, because we did okay really. We were the better side, we kept another clean-sheet and put another point on the board. I think the biggest negative, the real negative if you like, is that large parts of the second-half were pretty tedious on account of us leaving Danny Graham to fend for himself and the team not committing enough bodies forward often enough. We created nothing at all for Graham and chose to just clip it towards him far too often, which didn’t work. We need to get him some support, occupy the other centre-half by having somebody prepared to get themselves into the box, and try to use that to open the game up for him if we want him to score goals because he won’t get too many if we use him like we did today. Fingers crossed that Lee Tomlin can come into the side in a couple of weeks time and give us that spark we need.
All in all, I’m fairly satisfied because we were the better side, and kept yet another clean-sheet, but the feeling that there is more to come from this side in terms of attacking the opposition and scoring some goals means I’m a little frustrated tonight. We’re almost there but not quite, so I’ll try and think about the positives as we head towards next week’s visit to Vicarage Road and the 0-0 draw with Watford.