Tuesday, 30 December 2008

Bouncing back?

If the Everton game was the footballing equivalent of driving to Dundee barefoot gorging on (medium-sized) Toblerones, then last night's 1-0 defeat to Manchester United was an important step on the path back to respectability. The figures still don't look good - one place outside the bottom three by virtue of superior goal difference, no wins in eight games, only two goals scored in six games and none in the last three.

It should also be remembered that this fixture is of trifling importance compared to the next two league games - at home to Sunderland and away to West Bromwich Albion. These fixtures, rather than trips to Old Trafford, will determine whether our flirting with the relegation zone proves a brief dalliance or a drawn out affair.

That there were changes to the side who struggled so grimly against Everton was unsurprising, even if Gareth Southgate's hand was forced in some areas. The cynics were given further ammunition by another groin injury for the apparently careless Mido, allowing Afonso Alves a starting opportunity. Only Chris Riggott and Emmanuel Pogatetz remained from the defence that creaked on Boxing Day, and even then the skipper reverted from the centre to left back. Matthew Bates and David Wheater replaced Tony McMahon and Andrew Taylor.

Despite the 4-5-1 formation, Boro were relatively purposeful. Under heavy pressure, the defence coped well. There were inevitably some scares - bete noire Cristiano Ronaldo spurned two presentable chances while Ross Turnbull made an excellent save from a stinging Wayne Rooney half volley. On the break, Boro were neat and patient with the ball without creating any clear cut chances. The main drama of the first half came in injury time as Pogatetz foolishly grappled with Ronaldo in the box. The Portuguese was not reticent in letting the Boro skipper and referee Martin Atkinson know of his displeasure.

The second half began in an encouraging fashion, culminating in Tuncay heading a Matthew Bates cross inches wide of the post. There could have been even better openings had Julio Arca and Stewart Downing showed more composure when given time and space in front of the United defence. Cruelly, Boro's strongest patch of the game was ended by the decisive goal. David Wheater failed to clear a cross and Dimitar Berbatov poked the rebound past Turnbull. While Paul Scholes did seem to foul Chris Riggott, any complaints should be muted given the referee's failure to punish Pogatetz for his earlier misdemeanour.

The visitors tired considerably as United played keep-ball for lengthy spells. There was only the briefest scare for the home team, coming in the closing seconds of injury time. The ball was clipped into box and Tuncay executed a spectacular bicycle kick. However, had the post not denied him, the linesman's flag would have.

Having put up a creditable display when nothing but defeat was expected, Boro now have to deal with the weight of expectation. Once the banana skin of Barrow has been negotiated, there's a derby with Ricky Sbragia's Sunderland. With the Mackems just two points away, a worthy performance will not be enough.

Man of the Match Ross Turnbull

Saturday, 27 December 2008

Sinking towards the abyss

Boro slumped to within one place of the relegation zone after a depressingly predictable Boxing Day defeat to Everton. 2008 began with a soul-crushing loss to the Toffees and, 12 months on, nothing much seems to have changed.

With an ominous trip to Old Trafford to come on Monday, all it would take is positive results for Blackburn and/or Stoke to see Boro end the year in the bottom three. It was less than two months ago when Boro won at high flying Villa to close in on the European places. After a run of seven winless games, our best hopes of continental action next season is a trip to Swansea or Cardiff.

The one-goal margin of victory flattered the home side. A team with the strikers or sense of style that Everton singularly lack would surely have run up a cricket score. The prospect of Manchester United against this team is truly terrifying.

Despite his repeated post-match insistence that 'lessons will be learned', Gareth Southgate continues to make the same mistakes. It has been some time since Andrew Taylor convinced at left-back. Once again, his lack of strength and positional sense were exposed.

The centre of midfield is a complete disaster without Didier Digard. Julio Arca's move to the centre has long since gone sour. His ponderous display was perhaps the worst of any home player yesterday (no mean feat), leading to several chances for the visitors. Gary O'Neil is a willing but limited partner.

Perhaps the biggest indictment of the manager's plans is the feckless attack. Stewart Downing looked a pale shadow of last season's top scorer, his performance making a mockery of a mooted £15m price tag. Tuncay may have been poor yesterday, but the withdrawal of the team's only maverick attacking talent ten minutes into the second half was mystifying.

Hopefully, Downing and Tuncay will stay long enough for Boro to benefit when their form does return. Adam Johnson is some way off being ready for a regular starting position. His attempt to win a penalty was shameful and rightly punished by the erratic Mike Riley, one of the few decisions he got right.

Mido charged around conceding free kicks, doing everything but his job as a target man. Afonso Alves made one good chance for himself but fell over. While Southgate does have some basis to refer to financial restraints making his job harder, it should not be forgotten that these two were both signed by him for a combined total of around £20m. Their contribution offers scant evidence that the manager should be trusted with any more money.

The price for injecting new blood into this side seems to be the unpalatable loss of one of the side's few assets. Its vital that if Southgate does remain as manager (and its highly unlikely there will be any change before the season ends), that he retains his conviction that he is the man for the job. The grim truth is that it is the current staff who will be responsible for ensuring the club's survival as a Premier League outfit.

Southgate was a player of such class that his attributes often hid the deficiencies of others. Unfortunately for him, he's now unable to rely on his players to prop up a ropey managerial record. The question anyone connected with the club must now be asking is how much worse things have to get before it gets better.

Man of the Match Ross Turnbull - retaining his form as all around him lose theirs. He'll need to be on top form at Old Trafford to keep things respectable.

Friday, 19 December 2008

Mark-ed man

Schwarz: The Bananaman years

The journey to Craven Cottage may be one of the longest trips of the entire season but Boro can be sure of a familiar face guarding the Fulham goal. Mark Schwarzer spent over 11 years on Teesside, joining from Bradford City in the midst of the mayhem of the 1996/97 season before eventually moving south during the summer.

During that time, there were some memorable moments. A sprawling save to deny Luis Cavaco was crucial in denying Stockport on Boro's run to a first major Wembley final. A stunning performance to resist Port Vale in the closing weeks of the 97/98 promotion push. A string of fine saves to redeem his horrific error in Cardiff. That penalty save at Man City to win a second crack at Europe.

Yet, despite those highlights and sticking with the club for such time, Boro's fanbase never really seemed to fully embrace the big Aussie. Despite occasional murmurs over his abilities, only the nostalgic romantics ever argued on this basis. Schwarzer is head and shoulders Boro's best post-liquidation keeper.

Some sceptics were never won over after the Schwarzer/Crossley schism of the 2001/02 season. With the Australian injured, Mark Crossley enjoyed an extended run in the team. The ex-Forest stopper put in a series of superb displays, keeping ten clean sheets in a 17 game spell. This would be an impressive record in any team, never mind one labouring in the lower half of the table.

Celebrating his finest hour - Eastlands, 15 May 2005

Convinced on the identity of his number 1, Steve McClaren immediately replaced Crossley on Schwarzer's return to fitness. Many fans were irritated by the decision, which smacked of a pig-headed refusal to acknowledge Crossley's fine form. It would be churlish to hold Schwarzer responisble for that decision but many chose to do so anyway.

More were turned off when Schwarzer handed in a transfer request in January 2007. On this occasion, McClaren did decide to omit his keeper after a series of ropey displays. Schwarzer's response did not befit such an experienced professional. Suggestions from his agent that his client fancied a move to Milan (the day before sitting on the bench at Nuneaton Borough) implied a distant relationship with reality. The spat was patched up fairly swiftly. Schwarzer made a valuable to domestic recovery and continental success in the following months. Yet the impression left was not of a man loyal to the club, but one who showed a startling lack of grace towards the fans and the club who'd paid him well for such a time.

That, however, would be an unfair appraisal who contributed much to the successes of the past decade. There may have been low points but these are surely outweighed by the positives. Both Gareth Southgate and new no. 1 Ross Turnbull have been quick to praise Schwarzer. As the manager points out, the transition has gone better than could have been expected. If Turnbull goes on to enjoy a career as fruiftul as his predecessor's, we we should all be grateful.

Sunday, 14 December 2008

Patched up Boro defy Gunners

Ali counts how many goals he's scored this season

Are Boro Arsenal-lite? The Guardian's excitable north east correspondent Louise Taylor is not the first to draw parallels between Gareth Southgate's Boro and Wenger's Arsenal. There certainly some similarities - a priority for lean, young squads and disinclination for big money signings. Its typical of Boro that we chose to emulate a club at almost the precise point their capacity to win trophies disappeared.

Arsene Wenger has been uncharacteristically gracious in his assessment of Southgate - perhaps he is trying to divert attention from the novice's unbeaten record against his team, which now runs to five games. Pools aficionados must also be in the Southgate fan club - this is the fourth of that run to end in a 1-1 draw.

Despite that impressive track record, expectation amongst a fairly sparse home crowd was not high. The post-Villa optimism seems distant already - the subsequent four games yielding just two points. The combination of another foul winter's day and the loathed lunchtime kick-off dampened spirits to something less than festive.

There was also concerns over the fitness of a makeshift backline. With Wheater suspended and both regular full-backs injured, Chris Riggott and Robert Huth stepped up from the treatment table, Emmanuel Pogatetz played through the pain barrier again while Tony McMahon made his first Boro start for some time. Real Madrid target Adam Johnson made a rare start while the manager's patience finally ran out with the struggling Afonso Alves.

Operating in an unusual 4-5-1 formation, Boro made a surprisingly purposeful start as Didier Digard flashed over a succession of dangerous corners. The visitors began to make an impression, one particularly ominous move ending in Robin van Persie narrowly missing. When their opener did arrive it came in a less stylish manner, Emmanuel Adebayor left to head home Fabregas' corner with disconcerting ease. There may be convincing arguments for using zonal marking systems but Boro seem to be undermining the concept with a particularly sloppy version on a weekly basis.

This Arsenal team may retain the passing verve of their predecessors but they lack the resolve of the Petit/Vieira side of the late 90s or the 'invincibles' of 2004. Boro were back level within 12 minutes and if there was fortune in the opportunity there was undeniable quality in the execution. Clichy's ricocheted clearance only found Tuncay, whose whipped cross was met with a superb stooping header from Jeremie Aliadiere.

Having threatened to run away with it at one point, Arsenal could perhaps consider themselves fortunate to remain level at half time. Didier Digard was an increasingly efficient and competitive presence in midfield. The revised defence grew in composure. Only an appalling decision by referee Peter Walton prevented Boro having a gilt-edged chance to lead after Gael Clichy clearly tripped Adam Johnson in the area.

In the opening periods of the second half, Boro continued to look strong. Several promising counter attacks fell just short of opening the Arsenal defence. When Julio Arca did breach the backline with a beautifully weighted pass, Boro were thwarted by Manuel Almunia. Stewart Downing, leaving Bacary Sagna in his wake, thumped a powerful effort that was sneaking inside the near post before the Spaniard's intervention.

Over the closing half hour, Arsenal's dominance of possession grew. The prodigious effort from the likes of Aliadiere and Digard left the side looking increasingly jaded. Yet the defence showed remarkable concentration - despite seemingly incessant pressure, Ross Turnbull was rarely forced into anything beyond the straightforward.

The gap between Boro and the bottom three remains uncomfortably slim but this was still a worthy point against Wenger's dangerous but fragile outfit. The performances of the resurgent Chris Riggott, the returning Tony McMahon and the increasingly assured Didier Digard offered real encouragement. Its unlikely either of these sides have the quality to achieve their stated goals this season. Both teams suffer from a lack of depth, questionable resolve and infuriating inconsistency. The wait for potential to become achievement continues.

Man of the Match Didier Digard

Saturday, 13 December 2008

A Striking Problem

In two of the last three transfer windows, Gareth Southgate has made late and expensive moves for strikers. Unless Boro's difficulties up front start to clear up, we may well be stopping up late on January 31st again. Despite the odd bit of tabloid tittle tattle, its highly unlikely Tuncay will be going anywhere. But the Turk will be much more effective given license to drop off a main striker and bring the midfield into play. He may run around like a demented rooster, but the Turk should still be more artist than warrior.

The problems with Mido and Afonso Alves are very different. Mido seems a more complex character than many give him credit for. Its not hard to see why he's been labelled a mercenary. In a professional career that is not yet ten years old, he'd already played for El-Zamalek, K.A.A. Gent, Ajax, Celta Vigo, Marseille, Roma and Tottenham before signing for Boro last year. His time at Ajax was fruitful on the pitch but fraught off it, the most noticeable indiscretion being an alleged scissor-chucking incident involving team-mate Zlatan Ibrahimovic. The recent Boksic-esque run of suspiciously late injuries before games, particularly away from home, does not help in this regard.

It would be a little harsh to brand Mido in the same way. The Croatian was the classic hired hand, unmoved in defeat or victory, with scant motivation beyond self-interest. In admittedly rare moments of fitness during his Boro career, Mido has shown a surprising capacity to inspire team-mates and fans alike. Its the story of his career – at his best, he's a hard-working, technically sound and physically imposing target man. Getting 'his best' out of Mido remains an enigma.

Articulate and intelligent (for a footballer anyway), Mido still seems to be his own worst enemy. “I have made mistakes in my career with some of my moves. I didn't stay and fight for my position," he said in September. "Now I have to learn from the past and think that it is not always an option to go somewhere else when I am not in the team.” You have to wonder how many more European clubs will be prepared to give him a chance if his time at Boro ends in all too familiar frustration with a wasted talent.

If many feared such issues with Mido, its fair to say the record signing of Afonso Alves in January met with something a lot closer to universal approval. Gareth Southgate's faith in the Brazilian remains strong but the doubters are growing in number and volume. A patchy start could be explained away with talk of time needed to adapt and achieve full fitness. A superb brace against Manchester United and a last-day hat trick in the 8-1 humping of City assuaged many concerns.

Instead of flowing, the goals have dried up this term – three in total and just the one from open play. Alves cuts an increasingly fraught figure, struggling to come to terms with the physical side of Premier League defenders and bereft of confidence in the penalty area. The harder he tries, the worse things seem to get. His insistence on retaining free kick duty against Newcastle was brave but the results were embarrassing. Fans in the upper rows behind the goal cowered in a fashion not seen since Stewart Downing last limbered up to take a penalty.

The £20m spent on these two dwarfs the investment made in other areas but its hardly new for expensive strikers to turn into injury-riddled, jelly-legged flops as soon as they arrive on Teesside. We can only hope that if the chequebook has to come out, the curse of Davenport doesn't strike again.

From Fly Me To The Moon 432 (Boro v Arsenal)