Sunday, 22 November 2009

Forest stump Boro

Gordon Strachan is still waiting for his first victory after another concerning afternoon at the Riverside. After a promising start, Boro reverted to bad old habits and were fortunate to escape with a point. Boro have taken just four points from the last six home games, failing to score in four of them.

Strachan made further changes to his team, replacing both full-backs, recalling Julio Arca and a masked Emanuel Pogatetz, pushing Rhys Williams into the back four and handing a debut to Dave Kitson up front. The reshuffle paid off almost immediately as Boro took an early lead. Adam Johnson found an unmarked Arca and, although Lee Camp managed to stop his shot, the Forest keeper's limp wristed parry gave Leroy Lita an easy chance.

For the opening half hour Boro looked comfortable, although clear-cut chances were still at a premium. Defenders snapped into tackles while Isaiah Osbourne and Gary O'Neil ferried the ball around midfield sharply and accurately. As half time dawned, Boro loosened their grasp on their game and were indebted to Brad Jones for maintaining the lead at half time. The oft maligned keeper blocked magnfiicently when Dele Adebola took advantage of a slip by Sean St Ledger to send David McGoldrick.

The limp end to the first half set the tone for a depressing second 45 minutes, during which Forest completely dominated. The equaliser had been coming long before the 73rd minute when Rob Earnshaw clipped a free kick into the gaping left-hand corner of Brad Jones' net. At the other end, Lee Camp was a spectator. Kitson and Lita were starved of service and struggled to hold the ball up - their replacements, Marcus Bent and Jonathan Franks, fared little better.

With automatic promotion an increasingly remote possibility, even the play-offs may be beyond Boro based on their current form. The points earned in the early weeks of the season, with a defence marshalled by former captain Robert Huth and an attack sprinkled with Tuncay cameos, have given the current squad an artificial position in the top half of the table.

Since the double sale to Stoke, Boro's record reads P13 W4 D3 L6 F16 A18 Pts15. Over the whole season, that kind of form would leave Boro two-thirds down the table at best, looking nervously over their shoulders. There are severe systemic flaws with the current team and Gordon Strachan is being left to perform major surgery mid-season after being parachuted in. It is going to take more than a few weeks on the training ground to sort out a nervy defence and tepid attack or the stodgy, unimaginative home performances that have pockmarked 2009.

When opponents can neutralise the threat of Adam Johnson, as Forest did by fair means and foul, Boro are worryingly limited. The vast turnover of players reflects the attempts of two managers to find short term solutions to underlying issues. Boro are wasteful, timid and uninspired on the ball, particularly at the Riverside, and have been for at least a year. Too many players make the wrong decisions at crucial moments at both ends. There is a fundamental lack of resilience and quality in the squad. Of the current top fifteen teams in the division, Boro have beaten only one (Swansea City, way back on the second weekend of the season).

It is a long road back to the Premier League from here.

Friday, 20 November 2009

Shuffling the pack

Having spent years throwing cash about with wild abandon, these are new and austere times at Boro. Gordon Strachan doesn’t seem too keen on the squad he’s been left with (with good reason, it should be added) and has already made attempts to spruce things up. Unfortunately, with the transfer window shut and funds sparse, the only option is to rummage through football’s equivalent of the reduced items shelf in the supermarket in the hope that, hidden behind a dubious looking slab of beef or a dented can of Stella, there may be a shop-soiled Dave Kitson lying about.

There’s always a suspicion about players clubs are willing to lend, something planted during my formative years. For every Uwe Fuchs, there was a Rab Shannon, a David Winnie and an Anthony Barness. And then there was John Gannon. Signed in late 1993, with the Lawrence era now firmly enveloped by a gentle but terminal haplessness, he only stayed for seven games but left horrible memories.

Boro now have five loan signings on their books, meaning Strachan only has a few weeks left to decide who has a future and who will be out on their arse quicker than John Eustace (Boro career: one two minute substitute appearance, one yellow card).

Sean St. Ledger seems to have the most secure future. Its unlikely that Preston would have agreed to release one of their key players without a guarantee there would be hard cash to come in January. It’s hard to gauge how good an idea this is without confirmation of the true cost. On the one hand, with Joe Bennett seemingly out on the naughty step already, St. Ledger is the only defender left who looks happy carrying and passing the ball. However, the partnership with David Wheater hasn’t been convincing, even if St. Ledger has increasingly looked the more composed of the pair.

The remaining quartet may be less permanent figures. Caleb Folan (remember him?) has so far made the least contribution of all the strikers signed by Gareth Southgate. Half man, half ball repellent, Folan twanged his hamstring almost as soon as he’d removed himself from Jonas Olsson’s pocket. Still, at least he said some mean things about Phil Brown, so he’s not all bad.

The speed with which Strachan has moved for alternative options up front and in midfield doesn’t bode well for the previous incumbents. It’s too early to judge Isaiah Osbourne, Marcus Bent or Dave Kitson but they all now have eight games to make an impression before the transfer window opens. It doesn’t seem too long ago that Kitson was scoring on a regular basis for Reading in the top flight. Unless Stoke are prepared to write most of the £5.5m they spent on signing him last summer though, it’s probably best not to get too attached.

The new manager seems to be left with something of a dilemma come January. There seems to be a realisation that the current squad of permanently contracted staff isn’t going to be good enough to get the club back into the top flight. With a million or two seemingly set aside for the St. Ledger deal, there isn’t going to be a fortune left for other deals. The manager will have to choose between trying to inject much needed quality on a budget or sacrifice his left winger, best player and most valuable asset. Now where have we heard that one before...

From tomorrow's Fly Me To The Moon

Sunday, 1 November 2009

Grim start for Strachan

Gordon Strachan's reign as Boro boss has begun with dispiriting defeat. Plymouth Argyle, struggling in penultimate position in the Championship before yesterday's game, earned a 1-0 win as Boro once again laboured in front of their home fans.

An improved crowd of 21,141 turned up for the start of a new era but the all too familiar failings that cost Gareth Southgate his job were clear for all to see. If Strachan is to succeed, he needs to find some quick solutions to a defence prone to costly lapses of concentration and an attack incapable of breaking down opponents who sit deep.

The new manager struck a surprise by deploying Julio Arca on the right side of midfield, while Emanuel Pogatetz returned in place of the mysteriously absent Joe Bennett. New loan signing Marcus Bent was restricted to the bench.

The pattern of the game was quickly established. Plymouth sat deep but showed both defensive resilience and nimble counter attacking that belied their poor league position. Boro enjoyed greater possession and territory but, apart from an early chance for Marvin Emnes that was well blocked, Romain Larrieu was rarely tested. Indeed, the Pilgrims' attempts to exploit the rustiness of Pogatetz looked far more ominous.

Despite a long pause as Pogatetz departed with a nasty looking facial injury, Boro started the second half much better. While evidently unfit, Marcus Bent provided a much more robust presence up front than Emnes although he did head wide from an inviting cross. Even Arca briefly sparkled with one twinkle toed run teeing up Wheater for a scuffed shot that Larrieu eventually stopped.

An opening goal seemed inevitable. Unfortunately, it came in front of the largely deserted South Stand. A long punt upfield was met by Jamie Mackie, who somehow evaded David Wheater to slot past Jones. It was an appalling error of judgement by the Boro captain, whose lack of progress since his breakthrough year is a growing concern.

Wheater's partner Sean St Ledger enjoyed one of the better performances of his loan spell, frequently bringing the ball out of defence to try and spark a lethargic Boro side into life. There should have been an equaliser after one such surge, when the referee generously awarded a spot kick when St Ledger tumbled under pressure after playing a one-two with Leroy Lita. However, Adam Johnson failed to test Larrieu, his kick glancing the outside of the keeper's left hand post. Despite seven minutes of injury time, a Bent header glanced wide was the best Boro could muster. For the fourth time in five games, Boro left the Riverside with no points and no goals.

The defeat leaves Boro one spot outside the play-off zone and they could slip further before next weekend's trip to Crystal Palace. Boro's abject home form (seven goals and seven points from eight fixtures) is reaching crisis levels. Unless its solved, and solved quickly, even the play-offs could be beyond Gordon Strachan. If the new man wasn't aware of the task in front of him before Saturday, he surely will be now.