“STUART Pearce once took Gareth Southgate to a Sex Pistols concert”. I wish Alan Parry hadn’t reminded me of that just before kick-off at the City of Manchester Stadium because it sent me off on a bondage-trousered nostalgic pogo through a chaotic two chord thrash of a game that was more about noise and energy than finesse and artistry.
Of course it wasn’t a real Pistols concert, splashed with adrenaline, creative juices and a naive zest to smash the old order they went to. It was one of those tacky ‘tourists are money’ soulless paunchy punk anniversary revival tours, a pale imitation of what the fans know and love and still deep down belive in and aspire to, a cynical imitation of the real thing starring millionaires going through the motions. A bit like the shiny new football.
Just mentioning it got my back up, suddenly sneering at proceedings through a Pavlovian punk prism. City had Thomas Cook across their shirts and I heard the stomp of boots and the power chord thrash of Holidays In The Sun... ‘a cheap holiday in other people’s misery’…. here’s a Pistols compilation of impressions.
No Fun…. it was a game with little to cheer for the Boro fan. No pace, no passion and no punch. Not a single attempt at goal in the first half and apart from a lively opening five minutes when Downing put in two good crosses there was little to trouble City at all. To have Neil Warnock condemning you at half time hurts but it would be a brave – and delusional – Boro fan who questioned his harsh assesment: the team were poor, they had failed to put any sort of pressure on City and were losing battles in every area of the pitch.
After back-to-back wins had artificially raised expectations of some pre-ordained rise into the top half this was a stinging reality check. Boro were out-fought and out-played by a struggling side and it was not pretty. It was only in the last desperate few minutes that Boro even troubled the City box and even then never had one effort that forced a save.
Submission… Boro have a problem with teams that get in their face and rough them up. The commitment to passing and crisp, elaborate movement is laudable but unless they can also counter the challenge of robust, high-tempo sides that set out to hit them hard and early then they can not build a platform for the pleasing pretty patterns.
Boro capitulated to physical Portsmouth and Blackburn and struggled but were finally swamped by 100mph Sheffield United. They have gone some way to countering that threat with the double sessions and fitness work but are still short in some areas, noteably lacking a snarling, nasty terrier of a forward who can unsettle defences and a similarly spikey midfielder with real pace who can intimidate the opposition and play a bit.
Bodies… Stuart Parnaby limping off after 18 minutes of his first match back after a spell on the sidelines underlined the problem at right back and probably opened the door to Abel Xavier’s sheepish return from a year in the cold after overdosing on the Lemsip.
But it was a bruising game that could leave Boro nursing a few knocks. Manu Pogatetz got accidentally head-butted after he obstructing Dunne and the lumbering own-goal specialist – naturally transformed into clinical dead-ball targetman for the visit of Boro – clocked him. The hard as nails Austrian went down writhing and clutching his face and I feared the fractured eye socket he picked up from the flailing elbow of Kevin Davies had gone again.
And George Boateng seems to spend a growing proportion of each game hobbling. Certainly he seems to limp heavily out of the changies every week. Partly it is because he is brave and goes in for 30/70 challenges he has no right to make but increasingly there is a suspicion he is making them because he was caught out of position or short of pace in the first place.
Did You No Wrong… in return though powder puff Boro rarely leave the opposition pole-axed and debilitated. And that is not a plea for vicious foul play – especially from you Mad Dog – although few fans would raise objections should the likes of Paul Dickov get clattered. It is more a case of Boro being ready to put in the kind of full-blooded bone-crunching tackle that sends out the signal that they are no soft touch, that they will shed blood to win.
Robert Huth sent Andy Johnson sprawling into the North Stand hoardings and out of the game against Everton. We need more of that uncompromising physical presence, especially in those games against the ten teams or so who rely exclusively on brawn and work-rate.
Substitute…. Massimo Maccarone got into more threatening positions and had more chances in the last five minutes than the rest of the team produced in the rest of the game yet despite twice being given a golden chance to salvage a point and stake his claim for a starting place in the absence he twice hit the woodwork. Therein lies the Massimo dilemma. Some fans love the Gladiator because he runs, chases lost causes and gets into threatening positions. Others think he is a donkey because when he gets there – stoppage time in big European ties excepted – he invariably misses.
As an impact player he is lacking in that ability to change games. That is why he has rarely started games. In fact Boro’s squad is now alarmingly thin and looking down the bench most week who is there who can change a game?
Liar… the ability of players to genuinely believe they are the injured party despite clearly having just committed a blatent foul never ceases to amaze. Joey Barton came from behind to stamp his studs into the back of Rochemback’s standing leg calf when he had no chance of taking the ball on 65 minutes. Rocky quiet dramatically went up in the air before belly-flopping in pain while Barton, clearly guilty and rightly shown the yellow card, fired a stream of invective at the ref then started on still wincing Rocky accusing him of feigning.
Seventeen… excellent crosses put in by Stewart Downing, Boro’s only real creative threat. The much maligned winger continues to be the main attacking threat. Late on he showed superb control to bring down a Morrison then picked out Huth to head over, drifted into the middle to scoop up a loose ball then superbly picked out Massimo to rattle the post and twice put dangerous crosses into the box that sparked scrambles but Boro could not profit.
Downing has been back to his brilliant best in the past few games yet still has his critics. He beats his men, gets down the line and crosses, too often perfectly into spaces that should have been attacked by team-mates. Yet until he is getting on the end of his own crosses and firing home or breaking his leg charging back to tackle some people will still complain.
Problems… where to start? Pogo does not look as accomplished on the left as in the centre. The move may have solved a political problem but it is far from perfect. Huth several times got caught napping against City and has yet to demonstrate he is a better partner for Woodgate than the Austrian is. Rocky staring in the middle is a major risk. He has flair but he too often drifts leaving gaps for the opposition to exploit and he too often gets caught for pace and is robbed in possession. Jason Euell has shown promise as an attacking midfielder but playing behind Yakubu he has was anonymous. The Nigerian is lightweight played as a lone striker. Without Viduka there is no one to hold the ball up. The lack of creativity on the right leaves Boro unbalanced. And right back remains a glaring problem too.
None of these problems are insurmountable providing Southgate has his full squad to pick from but even a few injuries or suspensions will leave Boro weak in key areas. A major reshuffle is needed in January if he is to make progress with this squad.
No Feelings…. the thing that hurts fans most, especially those that have splashed out their hard earned cash to actually travel to games that they could watch for nothing on the box, is the perception that there is a lack of passion. Fans are fired by passion, it is the currancy of the terraces. So to see opposition players charging about snarling and shouting, busting a gut and going in where it hurts while Boro appear to be cruising, or resigned or complacent really stings. No one Is innocnet. It is the root cause of most of the frustration, anger and insults directed at the pitch. Wishing you had a Paul Dickov is a bad sign.
Whatcha Gonna Do About It…. victory against Watford is vital. Having already lost to promoted Reading and Sheffield United failure against a Hornets side yet to win would bring an embarrassing typical Boro hat-trick and once more spark relegation fears, recriminations and questions over Southgate’s leadership but victory would mean three wins out of four, calm nerves and push Boro safely into the mid-table comfort zone.