Middlesbrough 1-1 Stoke City
by Dave Hearn
There is plenty of satisfaction to be taken from the way Boro attacked, particularly in the first half, and the way they restricted Stoke, a seasoned Premier League outfit with three successive top-half finishes behind them, to so few clear sights of goal. The members of the team who were making their first appearances in the top-flight of English football acquitted themselves well, with the performances of Friend and Adomah catching the eye before fatigue set in during the final quarter of the match, whilst Adam Clayton appeared to become more accustomed to the more nuanced demands of a midfield battle played at Premier League level as the game progressed.
The game itself felt like a series of carefully choreographed short and simple passing moves regularly punctuated by the referee blowing up for the kind of minor infringement that goes unpunished in the second-tier – where the more robust nature of the physical contact on show can cancel out the more subtle brushing of arms, shoulders and shins that resulted in several free-kicks going against us here – but this is something that Boro will have to get used to if they are to build on what is a promising start to the season. There did appear to be several ‘soft’ free-kicks awarded against us but that is how the game works at Premier League level. Stoke were simply a vastly experienced and well-drilled top-flight outfit who knew how to take advantage of the occasional moments of naivety in Boro’s eagerness to win back possession of the ball.
It is also tempting to wonder whether Marten de Roon’s presence in the middle of the field would’ve offered Boro a firmer platform from which to deal with Glenn Whelan finally venturing past the halfway line in the second half, easing Stoke’s over-reliance on the imposing Giannelli Imbula to dictate the tempo of their play in the process, though Adam Forshaw can be pleased with his afternoon’s work and it was heartening to see his appetite for the ball was as strong as ever despite the higher quality of opposition.
There was an intriguing sense of balance about the team – Boro named five left-footed players in their starting eleven, more than any of the other 17 teams to have played so far this weekend – and the clever movement and intelligence of players such as Stewart Downing, whose ability to retain possession and drift inside to allow Friend to carry on his role as an auxiliary winger will surely prove vital for Boro this season, and Gaston Ramirez caused genuine moments of uncertainty within the Stoke backline, whilst Alvaro Negredo is quite clearly the best striker to turn out for Boro since Mark Viduka.
The nature of the game at the top level – the sense of a more mechanical, more structured operation playing out beneath the surface of the actual spectacle – is quite clearly very different from what we have become used to over the past seven seasons but this is hopefully where the quality of the club’s recruitment, alongside the two years of hard work that Karanka and his staff have dedicated to building a team that can operate at Premier League level, will be most keenly felt. The season may only be one game old but the feeling that keeping Alvaro Negredo and Gaston Ramirez fit is crucial to our chances already looms large. As well as Boro played on Saturday, it is worth remembering that Stoke were incredibly sluggish at times in the first-half and the addition of one or two more quality attacking players to our ranks before the end of the month would be most welcome.
Perhaps the novelty of finding yourself absorbed in a game such as this one – a game with little goalmouth incident to speak of, and the constant manipulating of the laws of the game leaving little or no room for a sense of rhythm to develop – will wear off as the season grinds along but those fleeting moments of quality attacking intent; the simply beautiful close-control, speed of thought and body shape of Xherdan Shaqiri when attempting to manufacture a half-yard of space for himself, the ability of Alvaro Negredo to time his battles accordingly and take his only sniff of goal with the minimum of fuss, as well as the subtle tweaks in shapes and systems that momentarily create a yard of room for an attacking player before it is snuffed out by the opposition – mean there is plenty to suggest that this campaign will be an enjoyable one.
We will have to be patient at times. We will have to accept that there are more teams with a greater depth of players capable of producing moments of high-quality football more often than ours can – a consequence of the vast wealth afforded to those clubs who’ve been in the Premier League longer than Boro – than we have been used to at Championship level but there are plenty of grounds for optimism ahead of the trips to Sunderland and West Brom, particularly if this set of players can turn in performances of this nature on a regular basis.