Tuesday, 21 October 2008

A painful lesson

Yes Gary, you probably should have tried to tackle him

Gareth Southgate may have an endearing humility that his predecessor never possessed but his 'lessons will be learned' mantra is wearing as thin as Steve McClaren's blinkered post-match appraisals. Boro's patchy start to the season took a severe turn for the worse on Saturday as Chelsea molested Southgate's side 5-0. A hefty chunk of the 29,221 crowd left long before the end. Those that stayed to the bitter end can only have done so through a combination of morbid fascination and paralysing rage.

No mistake should be made about how dismal a display this was. Its hard to recall a more feckless, feeble performance in nigh on 18 years watching Boro. Southgate's selection and tactics were abysmal but the eleven chosen implemented his misguided plans with a staggering lack of poise and commitment.

Much was made before the match of Chelsea's list of absentees, but their reserves were still head and shoulders above anyone in a red shirt. More telling was how Southgate moulded a side missing Huth, Pogatetz and Tuncay. Scolari's team ruthlessly exploited Boro's makeshift defence. Jonathan Grounds, an inexperienced centre-half cum left-back, was on a hiding to nothing at right back. If it was unfair to ask Grounds to perform an unfamilair role against such skilled opponents, there could be no such excuse for Andrew Taylor on the opposite flank. Taylor simply appeared hopelessly out of his depth while David Wheater looked jaded by every single one of the pointless air miles incurred by his midweek sortie to Minsk.

Things looked little better further forward. The centre of midfield has been a concern all season and was simply abject. Gary O'Neil's distribution was desperate to the point of embarrassment, Didier Digard fared little better while Mohammed Shawky's influence was neglible. Julio Arca was rightly derided for his form last season but will surely get another chance if he can regain fitness. The status quo cannot just remain until the January transfer window.

On the flanks, Adam Johnson left Boro's struggling full-backs exposed while playing on either flanks. Stewart Downing seems a million miles from the star man of last season. The decision to burden him with the captaincy and deploy him in a multitude of positions in the same 90 minutes is perplexing. Downing's great strength is his ability to provide telling crosses and goals from a wide position. Southgate deserves credit for the way he has cajoled greater consistency from Downing since becoming manager. Unfortunately, his current plans seem to be having no impact on Downing's shattered confidence.

Nor has the early season theme of expansive, attacking football translated into a flurry of goals. Boro have scored seven times in eight league games, and only three times in five matches since the end of August. Mido's early season form has evaporated as the Egyptian has dropped ever deeper to prop up a failing midfield. Afonso Alves should be ashamed that he was justifiably considered not good enough to start in a team that played so poorly.

Chelsea are always difficult opponents, particularly given the attacking vibrancy Scolari has added to the side. Yet there can be no excuse for the total failure to give ourselves the best chance possible. Deploying so many players outside of their natural position would be risky with experienced professionals. To do so with such a callow, creaking squad was inviting disaster.

The manager has his work cut out to revive spirits before Saturday evening's trip to Blackburn Rovers. Emmanuel Pogatetz should return to bolster a flagging defence. Tuncay's return is looking unlikely and even so, an unreasonable level of expectation is being laid on the Turk's return. He won't be able to fix a leaky defence or a porous midfield. Several players need to show Southgate's faith in them is justified. Sadly, the pre-season concerns about the midfield and the lack of experience or sheer numbers in the squad are coming home to roost.

The manager's judgement and reputation are on the line now. His pre-season planning met with far from unanimous agreement. Those who silenced their doubts after a bright August have no reason for such reserve now. With seven games between now and the end of November, the next six weeks will have a crucial bearing on whether there will be another winter of discontent as we peer nervously over our shoulders. Southgate's credibility is barely over the bruising of last season's shameful defeat to Cardiff. Many more debacles like Saturday, and the damage could be terminal.