Thursday, 30 April 2009

Do Or Draw


The comments coming from the players and staff at the club has rarely been more predictable than in recent months. “Lessons will be learned” has become a catchphrase of a caricatured Gareth Southgate, a verbal tic every bit as irritating as any of Steve “Magnificent” McLaren. More cynical observers have been moved to play “rallying cry” bingo, trying to guess which half-interested player is wheeled out midweek to apologise for the previous week's dross and promise this Saturday will be different.

Its therefore tempting to treat recent comments about taking the attack to opponents and going down fighting with a pinch of salt. Last week's tame surrender at Arsenal was symptomatic of a manager who seems to have lost the courage to act on his attacking instincts. Once Fabregas made it 2-0, any fight and belief from the team or the manager. The tactical approach in the closing stages could generously be described as experimental. It almost seemed that Southgate felt scared to goad Arsenal into upping their efforts for fear of exacerbating our abysmal goal difference.

This total lack of ambition is almost excusable. Edging out Hull for 17th on goal difference seems a slightly less remote possibility compared with hopes of turning around a two-goal deficit at the Emirates. Furthermore, the way the team has performed all season makes aggressive tactics risky.

The weaknesses throughout the spine of the team make playing high up the pitch a real problem. David Wheater might not be the quickest but he's relatively rapid compared with Robert Huth, a man with the turning circle and nimble dexterity of an aircraft carrier. Consequently, the defence has to stay deep or ask the goalkeeper to act as a ad hoc sweeper. As Brad Jones has proved, that has its own risks.


The centre of midfield has been been a problem all season – incapable of retaining the ball for any sustained spell or providing adequate protection for the defence. In the second game of the season, Boro blew the opportunity for a historic win at Liverpool in the dying minutes. Having been comfortable for most of the game, the team left the door open, unable to keep the ball and struggling to close down opponents finding space in front of a retreating defence. It does not reflect well on the coaching staff that eight months and 32 games later, we don't seem any closer to solving this problem.

Matthew Bates has done better than most would have expected but it is indicative of the difficulties Southgate has had solving this problem that he has settled on the man who started the season as his fifth choice centre back to fill the role. Tuncay has at least provided some vision and composure on the ball for the first time since the unfairly maligned Fabio Rochemback left.

With games running out, circumstances must now dictate tactics more than personnel. There can be no other option than to attack. Manchester United's defence has looked vulnerable in recent weeks – we must now throw caution to the wind and hope our luck holds. And it should be remembered that, if relegation comes, it will not be because we were unable to beat teams who are in the last four of the European Cup.

Boro may be unbeaten at the Riverside in 2009 but that record has come at a cost. Insipid draws with Sunderland, Blackburn, Wigan and Portsmouth do not represent an adequate return considering they came in the middle of a record-breaking run of consecutive away defeats. Having passed up the opportunity to attack the weaker opponents, we've been left with no option but to do so against the best the league has to offer.

Read this and more in this Saturday's Fly Me To The Moon

Sunday, 12 April 2009

There is hope


A dead cat bounce or the start of the greatest of escapes? Yesterday's 3-1 victory over Hull City may yet prove to be too little, too late but at least, for the first time in too long, there was a semblance of fight and spirit from the home side.

With Gary O'Neil suspended, Tuncay was finally given the opportunity to reprise his Euro 2008 role in the heart of midfield. Gareth Southgate kept faith with goal-shy Afonso Alves while recalling Marlon King. King's recall was no surprise after he left Hull in acrimonious circumstances in January.

It was King and Alves who combined to help Boro make the perfect start. Pouncing on a loose ball after Tuncay hustled Ian Ashbee, King released Alves. Matt Duke could only parry Alves' shot into the path of Tuncay, the Turk opening the scoring with a simple finish and risking the ire of Sue Watson and Phil Dowd by celebrating with the crowd.

The lead didn't last long as old frailties showed again. Hull's corner was only partially cleared and Nick Barmby returned the ball into the box for Manucho to power a header past the helpless Brad Jones. With the back four still prone to jittery moments, Jones was called upon to deny Craig Fagan with a sprawling block.

Nevertheless, it was Boro who took a lead into half time. TV replays suggest the linesman was just correct to award a corner, which Tony McMahon swung in and Matthew Bates swept in at the near post.

As so often this season, Boro sat perilously deep in the second half, paralysed by fear of conceding an equaliser. For all Hull's pressure, there was little penetration, the closest to a second goal coming when Jones flapped unconvincingly at a cross and David Wheater had to clear from the line.

There were still opportunities on the break. There was a trademark run from the left flank from Alves, ending with a trademark shot smashed into the centre half's legs. Stewart Downing might have done better from an acute angle.

When the relief of a third goal came (for the first time in a league game since Manchester City were clobbered 8-1 last May), it was the returning George Boateng who made a crucial error, dallying on a pass from Duke with Aliadiere in close attendance. King picked up the loose ball to slot past the exposed Hull goalkeeper, much to the chagrin of Phil Brown. His sour post-match comments didn't reflect well on the Hull boss, although its hard to be too critical of anyone questioning King's character.

It was a messy game, typical of those involving struggling teams at this stage of the season. There were moments of tentative defending and the midfield still does not entirely convince. Whether Tuncay can save Boro's season from a deeper position is not clear but he at least injected a sense of urgency into a frequently insipid midfield. There is still a very long way to go to survival. For now, there is at least still hope.

Friday, 10 April 2009

You Are Boateng

Happier times - Boateng scores against Man Utd in 2007 FA Cup quarter final

Tomorrow's opponents Hull City could have a familiar face in their midfield tomorrow, a reminder of happier times. With typical tenacity, George Boateng is expected to be back from a knee injury earlier than expected and is likely to feature for the Tigers at some stage. A warm reception surely awaits.

Boateng's time at the Boro included some of the proudest moments in the club's history. His six years on Teesside included the 2004 Carling Cup win, qualifying for Europe after that dramatic draw at Manchester City and two European campaigns, including the run to Eindhoven.

Despite there being a year left on his contract, the former Dutch international was allowed to sign for Phil Brown's newly promoted side last summer. The relationship between Boateng and his former team-mate Gareth Southgate was strained over the course of the last season. In January 2008, it seemed Boateng would be allowed to leave after a training ground row. With Boateng increasingly left on the bench or shunted into an unfamiliar role on the right wing, he clearly felt his time at Middlesbrough was up.

Boateng consoles Andreas Isaksson after his last Boro appearance - an 8-1 win over Man City

There's no denying Boateng was struggling to maintain the standards set in his early years on Teesside. 2006/07 was a difficult season, with Boateng carrying an injury much of the time. Performances slipped. With a range of passing that could never be described as expansive, Boateng's critics felt his legs were going too.

But even last year, there was evidence of the commitment and passion that made Boateng such a fans' favourite. The game at Arsenal springs to mind - soon after the Cardiff City debacle (when Boateng was an unused substitute), Boro were desperately trying to restore pride. Jeremie Aliadiere scored a goal so much against the run of play it was almost insulting. Boro defended manfully to protect their lead with Boateng tearing across the pitch, tackling, blocking, deflecting everything that moved.

To some extent, Boateng's departure was understandable. His technical limitations didn't always help to build swift attacks and he was no longer quite the force of his early years at the Riverside. Unfortunately, we haven't been able to find anyone better than Boateng and, even worse, have not replaced his leadership. A captain who led by example, Boateng's sheer force of personality often kept Boro going in adversity.

We've rarely been in a position where a more technically adept midfielder would've thrived this season but there surely should have been a role for Boateng. It seems unlikely so many points would have been lost from winning positions had he still been around to galvanise the team against a late onslaught. As a player, he put everything he had into the game - if only we could say that about more of the current squad.

Thursday, 9 April 2009

The Great Escape

There's no point denying it – after getting shafted by Bolton last week, we are in serious trouble. There really isn't anything on the pitch to inspire much confidence – the defence is hopeless and the attack toothless. Given Boro have made clear they won't be relying on underhand tactics like tactical organisation or competent management, is there anything we can learn from those teams who have managed to defy footballing gravity in the past?

OLDHAM ATHLETIC (1992-93)

Distracted by a run to the FA Cup semi-finals, few gave Joe Royle's Oldham much chance of survival in May 1994. With one week to go, they needed to win their three games while hoping Crystal Palace took no more than one point from the two they had left. After winning 1-0 at high flying Villa, an Ian Olney-inspired Latics side beat Liverpool 3-2 while Palace could only draw at Man City. On the last day of the season, Royle's men raced into a 4-1 lead while a defence marshalled by a young Gareth Southgate was being overcome at Highbury. Despite conceding two late goals, Oldham held on to stay up on goal difference.

What lessons can we learn? Keep faith with crap strikers. Hope your opponents employ Gareth Southgate.

COVENTRY CITY (1996-97)

A relegation battle we can remember well. For a while, it seemed Coventry were going to save Bryan Robson's bacon. The tide turned at the beginning of April – on the same day Emile Heskey bundled that heartbreaking equaliser past Mark Schwarzer at Wembley, Gordon Strachan's City side nicked an improbable, last minute win at Anfield. This meant they were level on points with Boro and two behind the Mackems going into the final day. With neither side winning and kick-off at White Hart Lane suspiciously delayed, Coventry knew a win would save them. They beat Spurs 2-1 and stayed up by a point.

WLCWL? Hope you can find two inept north-east based sides to go down instead.

PORTSMOUTH (2005-06)

Portsmouth were in trouble in 2005. With agents' favourite Harry Redknapp gone, top scorer Yakubu buggered off to Boro. “You're welcome to the idle, moody get”, the Pompey fans said. They were clearly just bitter. Hmm.

On the pitch, Pompey stank, even after Redknapp returned to replace the permanently bemused Alain Perrin. Eight points adrift at one stage, a run of six wins and two draws in nine games ensured an unlikely rescue was confirmed with a game to spare. The run began with a preposterous last minuter winner, blattered from 30 yards by Pedro Mendes against Man City.

WLCWL? The best manager is the one you've just had. Tremendous.

WEST HAM UNITED (2006-07)

Like Boro, West Ham were five points adrift with seven to go. Unlike Boro, West Ham had Carlos Tevez and, inexplicably, the ability to avoid a points penalty in their hour of need. The Hammers became the first team to beat Arsenal at the Emirates and clawed their way into touching distance of the pack above. With rivals Sheffield United and Wigan going head to head on the final day, West Ham had a chance to haul themselves out of the bottom three but had to go to Old Trafford. With the title already sealed, a Carlos Tevez goal kept the Hammers up. Wigan won at Bramall Lane to send the Blades down and, by god, we've never heard the end of it.

WLCWL? Crime pays. Beating Arsenal and Man United would help.

FULHAM (2007-08)

After employing Lawrie Sanchez and foolishly financing his attempts to sign the entire Northern Ireland team, it was no surprise to find Fulham up shit creek bereft of paddles. Poor Roy Hodgson was almost in tears as his team stared “wewegation” down the barrel, five points adrift with three matches left, then 2-0 down at half time in their next game at Man City. Three goals in the last twenty minutes sealed an improbable win. Rivals Birmingham were doomed after losing 2-0 at Craven Cottage. On the last day, with Portsmouth's minds already on Wembley, Danny Murphy's goal completed the great escape.

WLCWL? Its not over until its over.

So there we have it Рit might not feel like it but there are still straws to clutch at. I'd love to present a case for our survival based on our peformance or ability but I can't. The only hope left is that we can become another statistical freak. If robust defence and penetrative attack can't save us, adherence to footballing clich̩ may yet.


Read this and more in this Saturday's Fly Me To The Moon

Saturday, 4 April 2009

Always new depths


Boro lurched deeper into the mire after a desperate 4-1 defeat at Bolton Wanderers today. Abject defending cost Gareth Southgate's side dearly, exacerbating both relegation woes and the poisonous atmosphere in a mutinous travelling support.

It didn't take long for a simple defensive error to set Boro on the back foot. Emmanuel Pogatetz inexplicably failed to cut out Ricardo Gardner's cross, leaving Kevin Davies with a simple finish. Boro looked uncomfortable with Southgate's unusual 5-3-2 formation, with David Wheater looking particularly ill at ease.

Yet with the awkward Pogatetz withdrawn through injury and a tactical switch, Boro began to get a foothold. An Afonso Alves free kick hit the post and Tuncay beat Jaaskelainen only to be denied by the linesman's flag. Not to be denied, Boro levelled after a slick move was finished off by Gary O'Neil.

Having got back in the game, Boro undid their good work with another awful piece of defending just before half time. A simple punt in the box caused untold problems and Gary Cahill was given a farcical amount of time to beat Brad Jones.

To their credit, Boro regrouped and started the second half well. Tuncay came close with a series of acrobatic efforts but the pressure passed without Jaaskelainen being unduly troubled. With the bench in stasis, Bolton began to exert a greater influence and Boro's threat receded. But when the third goal came it was something of a surprise, as Matthew Taylor's innocuous free kick somehow drifted into the far corner of Brad Jones' net. The rank defending as Ricardo Gardner added a late fourth on the break was now an irrelevance.

Boro's defending was nothing short of abject and the team looked totally bereft of belief in their own ability to save themselves. Pogatetz was simply awful, Wheater nervous, O'Neil wasteful, Downing peripheral. The travelling support expressed their anger at a team who inspire no passion or confidence. You have to wonder how low an ebb Boro must reach before Steve Gibson feels compelled to act. Gareth Southgate's team are heading down and, on this evidence, it is richly deserved.

Thursday, 2 April 2009

The Escape Must Start Here

Gareth is relying on one of these men to save Boro's season...

The final international break of the season is over. 8 weeks and 8 games are left for Boro to save themselves, starting on Saturday at Bolton Wanderers. With the need to increase the goal output imperative, and Tuncay doubtful after two games against European champions Spain, goal-shy Brazilian lunk Afonso Alves is likely to be given another opportunity. Adam Johnson may get also get a chance after an impressive showing as England's under 21 team were taught a lesson by their French counterparts.

The formbook does not give any reason for optimism for the game at the Reebok. Its not just that Boro haven't won an away game in the league since November 9th. They haven't taken an away point since drawing 1-1 at Everton on a week later, and haven't scored on the road since Tuncay's strike at Hull on December 6th. Boro have notched eight points and eight goals "on our travels" this season. Its an appalling record.

With the gap to seventeenth place and survival up to four points, its getting harder to see which teams could crumble and save Boro. With eleventh placed Tottenham now safe on 38 points, the relegated three can only plausibly come from nine clubs. Defeat to Bolton on Saturday would almost certainly ensure survival for Gary Megson's side.

The great escape must start here

Hull's dismal form means they must still be considered candidates. However, they start from a position of relative strength. With Portsmouth on Humberside this weekend before a trip to the Riverside, they do have an opportunity to avert danger soon. Two wins from eight will be enough for Phil Brown's team but if they don't get them soon they could be in trouble.

The same goes for Sunderland, who still have to face Hull, West Brom, Bolton and Portsmouth. Their safety is in their hands. As with Hull, it would take a total collapse over the next two months for relegation to occur.

Despite being level on points with Sunderland, Stoke and Portsmouth seem more realistic candidates for the drop. Stoke's dismal away form puts immense pressure to keep on picking up points at the Britannia. Even trips to the KC Stadium and the Hawthorns are unlikely to be rich pickings for a side who only have four draws to show for fifteen away games all season. Back to back home games against Blackburn and Newcastle will go a long way to sealing their fate.

Having looked doomed under Tony Adams, Portsmouth are starting to suggest they can scrape their way to safety. They had much the better of a poor game at the Riverside and the took an unexpected win over Everton. Their home form seems to be recovering, and with West Brom, Bolton and Sunderland still to go to Fratton Park, there's a good chance it will be enough to stay up. Like the other sides mentioned so far, Pompey not only have a handy points advantage over Boro but also a less imposing run-in.

Assuming West Brom are beyond hope (and if they're not there yet it surely won't be much longer), that means it likely to come down to two from three - Blackburn, Newcastle and Boro. Sam Allardyce has stabilised Rovers and kept them in touch with safety since taking over mid-season. They've still struggled for wins, particularly at home, with just three wins at Ewood Park all season. With away games at Liverpool, Stoke, Manchester City and Chelsea to come, that has to change. The main consolation for Rovers is that, should it come down to the last day of the season, they're at home to West Brom.

The latest Geordie dream team

Newcastle have listed dangerously in recent weeks and the appointment of Alan Shearer is either a last, desperate gamble or the act of a Match of the Day viewer at the end of his tether. There will be no disputing that the Tyne-Tees derby matters this year, with Boro's trip to St James's on May 3rd already looking crucial. With four tough away games (Stoke, Spurs, Liverpool and Villa) and Chelsea on Saturday, it will be all about about beating Portsmouth, Boro and Fulham at home for the latest Geordie messiah.

All of the above leaves Boro with no margin for error. The Riverside double header against Hull and Fulham must produce four, maybe even six, points to keep Boro in touch as the last five games look tricky. Of those fixtures, the first is at the Emirates and the two at the Riverside are against Manchester United and Aston Villa. That puts huge importance on taking points at Newcastle and then at West Ham on the last day of the season. There cannot be confidence but there is at least still some hope. Rapidly dwindling, blind hope but hope nonetheless.

Predictions

Bolton
- 42 pts
Portsmouth - 42 pts
Stoke - 40 pts
Hull - 40 pts
Sunderland - 39 pts
Blackburn - 39 pts
*********************
Newcastle - 36 pts
Boro - 34 pts
West Brom - 28 pts