Wednesday, 12 August 2009

Blades stalemate can't hide lack of progress

The new season kicked off with a whimper on Friday as Boro earned a point from a turgid goalless draw with Sheffield United. An increasingly disgruntled fanbase saw little evidence that Gareth Southgate has been able to solve the glaring flaws that led to relegation last season.

It was a game that will have reminded many of the visits of Blackburn, Sunderland and Wigan earlier this year. In each of those games, Boro struggled to create any attacking impetus and settled for a point. Few teams have ever built success on the back of home draws.

Sheffield United's game plan was simple but effective. The Blades' style may be attritional but its a formula that has worked consistently at this level. The home side showed little idea of how to counteract the physical advantage enjoyed by Chris Morgan and Matthew Kilgallon or the extra protection provided by the visitors' five man midfield.

There were moments of promise from the widemen. Mark Yeates showed a neat touch and a willingness to test the keeper on debut. Adam Johnson looked to have the beating of both full-backs but again his decision making at the crucial moment left plenty to be desired. Johnson has some way to go to match the standards set by Stewart Downing.

Both deserve some slack considering the difficulties of linking up with a powder-puff attack. The enigmatic Marvin Emnes struggled to make much of an impact but could still consider himself unfortunate to be replaced by a clearly unfit Leroy Lita. Jeremie Aliadiere's continued selection is depressing and mysterious. The Frenchman has a goalscoring record that would make Lee Dong Gook blush and its far from clear what else he offers. Morgan and Kilgallon can barely have had an easier evening, required to simply mop up the mindless long balls punted towards the anaemic attack.

There was at least more cause for optimism further back. Rhys Williams looked combative and tidy in possession playing obligatory defender-in-central-midfield role. David Wheater and Robert Huth were very comfortable at the back and Danny Coyne made some smart saves, although there were a few nervy moments against the crossed ball.

The damning reflection of the game is that all of last season's criticisms are still valid. The attack was insipid and the service to them generally witless. The visiting keeper was largely a spectator. It was near impossible to see where one goal was coming from never mind the two a game Southgate claimed as his target for the season. At this stage, Boro are a million miles away from achieving the stated goal of promotion.

There is only limited time to fix Boro's unbalanced squad. For all the speculation, the departures of the likes of Gary O'Neil, Tuncay and Afonso Alves are still just the subject of speculation. The likes of Rob Hulse may be sensible target but time is becoming an issue. By the time funds have been raised by selling players, there will not be long until the window shuts. Southgate will be left with a choice between pursuing players whose clubs are reluctant to sell, with the according risk of ending up with no-one, or recruiting second choice players. For a club that's become rather too accepting of mediocrity, that is a real concern.

If Sheffield United could be hailed as promotion rivals, there will nothing to qualify criticism if Boro fail against Swansea and Scunthorpe. Two away games in four days come far from the glamorous environs Boro had grown accustomed to. Impressive in the first season in the Championship, the Swans have been sorely weakened by the loss of Jason Scotland, Jordi Gomez and manager Roberto Martinez to Wigan. They lost their opening game at promoted Leicester City.

After the trip to Wales, its the shorter trip to Glanford Park. Scunthorpe, last season's League One play-off winners, are one of the favourites for the drop and began the season with a four goal caning at Cardiff.

Gareth Southgate needs to convert his pre-season words into results if there is any hope of salvaging his reign. If the run of twelve successive away defeats becomes fourteen, it may already be too late.

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