GUTTED. A stoppage time sucker punch. A sickeningly late sizzling strike fit to win any game denied gritty Boro a deserved point in a game where they beavered away, created some golden opportunities and, on the whole, defended well.
In the aftermath downbeat Gareth Southgate and the sullen players tried to take some positives out of the game: Boro set out with a 4-4-2 and two strikers and that given the chance for a Boro Idol phone-in facility the Teesside public would have picked; they set out to attack and created chances and showed embryonic signs of the offensive instinct the boss is seeking to make first nature; the off-colour Yakubu scored; and the attitude and endeavour was a vast improvement on the insipid display against Blackburn.
But hold on a minute.Trying to take positives out of nearly getting a point from Sheffield United? Sheffield bloody United? We should take heart because we could have had a draw at the relegation bound whipping boys who had yet to win? Oh dear.
It is hard to salvage much succour from a deeply worrying start to the season that has left
Boro now fast facing up to a long hard winter of basement battling.
The reality is this: Boro have five points and just one win from seven games and that is
relegation form. They have now lost twice against promoted sides who have by most criteria inferior squads. Boro have put in some spirited defensive displays but unless they start scoring and winning games fast they are deep in trouble.
In many respects Boro were not terrible at Bramall Lane. Woodgate, Pogatetz, Taylor and Cattermole played very well while both Yakubu and Woodgate had gilt-edged chances to score early goals that could have changed the complexion of the game.
But they were not great and only denied by a wonder goal either. A ruthless Premiership team would have had that game in the bag before Sheffield United scored their first and a good one would have not been hustled out of the points by the guiless workrate of a team of journeymen. Being the first team to lose to the one dimensional Warnock approach is not a good sign.*
There were some alarming issues raised. For instance, time after time the Blades were streaming at will through midfield almost unchallenged then pushing the ball out wide to both
flanks to put unopposed crosses in. Defence starts at up front and it wasn’t happening.
Failing to stem this tide left Boro under constant pressure and they struggled to clear the danger, balls out of the box coming straight back in – most tellingly when Jagielka fired one into the net for the winner.
Also, for all the talk of attacking football and two up front, there was little cutting edge. Yakubu drifted out wide left for long spells leaving only one to aim at when Boro were pressing and Mark Viduka had a lack-lustre game and resoundingly failed to impose himself, hold the ball up or cause problems in the box.
Mendieta came on and in his first five minutes had more shots than the Aussie had in the entire game. And he was livelier around the box. Yes, Viduka has been short of pitch-time this term and may have had his nose put out of joint being left on the bench but all the more reason to take his chance and make it impossible for Southgate to leave him out.
The problems must be resolved quickly. Everton and Newcastle are next up. Defeats in those games are unthinkable. If there are players who are not up to the challenge – either physically or mentally – then they must be barged aside. If there are weaknesses in the preparation they must be rectified now. There is too much at stake to let it drift.
*Apologies to any Blades fans who have taken umbrage at my description of the team. The piece was done on Saturday night when I was still emotionally raw and in truth it says more about Boro than it does about Sheffield United.
I am sure most objective Blades fans would accept that their squad while honest and hard working is limited technically and tactically and lacks star quality. It has been but together to do a particular job and play a particular style. That may have worked in the Championship but it will not in the Premiership. That is why before Boro it had not won a game. That is why it will struggle all season. Honest endeavour is not enough.
That said, it was enough to beat Boro. Congratulation and good luck for the rest of the season.
A few random observations…
THERE was a great atmosphere, maybe partly because the Blades fans know they are only popping in to the Premiership party for a while and are determined to enjoy it as Barnsley, Watford and West Brom fans have done before.
As the teams came out to the Star Wars theme blasted out then that led straight into a passionately parochial full-blooded rendition of their version of Annie’s Song about chip butties and pints of Tetley’s that get’s the whole home crowd buzzing.
Boro fans had just done a fairly loud and spirited Pigbag but the now frequently replicated mono-syllabic grunting does not have the same impact. We need something with lyrics that underlines our pride and our identity.
SHOULD Boro be more cynical? The first Sheffield goal came when a Boro corner was cleared and when Rocky’s flagkick came in Andrew Davies went up for it and got a meaty whack on the back of his head that sent him crashin to the ground. Untited pumped the loose ball forward and Rob Hulse raced clear and into the box to lift the ball deftly over the advancing Schwarzer.
Bravely and honestly Davies had hit the deck, picked himself up gingerly then started to run back even thoug hhe was 50 yards behind he action. But what if he had stayed down clutching his head. Jesus wept, it must have hurt. I’d have stayed down. But its a head injury. The referee would surely have had to stop the game. Instead of racing in Hulse wake Boro players woudl have been pointing and screaming at the ref and standing ashen faced over prostrated Davies.
No goal. Physio on. Everyone gets to throw water bottles around for a while. Davies walks slowly to touchline shaking and rubbing his head but winking at the dug-out. Play restarted with dropball on edge of Boro box. Woody hoofs it downfield. Would you feel ethically challenged if that happened? Isn’t that the essence of ruthless professionalism?
MAD Dog is mellowing. Within a minute of the second half starting Hulse brought Pogatetz down heavily out on the touchline and Boro got the foul then Mad Dog stood eyeball to eyeball with Hulse and was pulled away by team-mates but he followed him for a couple of minutes simmering and snarling at him.
But he wasn’t distracted. He didn’t boil over. He walked away and remained focused. At times last season that would have sent him loco and the next 50/50 ball would have seen Hulse hit the advertising hoardings. Back then of course Pogo was frustrated as he was being regularly skinned at left back where no he has grown in stature as a composed centre-back alongside super-cool Jonathan Woodgate.
That said, with a couple of minutes to go there was a high ball forward and Pogo came charging in from behind and wiped Hulse out.