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

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