‘MEET the new boss; same as the old boss’ said the Who in their vinyl discourse on regime change. I thought about that and the tendency of revolutions to slip inevitably back into the unpopular ways of the despised old order as Boro capitulated at Manchester City and Watford.
For all the talk from the barricades of radical change and of sweeping cultural revolution at Boro to transform the conservative team into shock troops championing a populist attacking style of football, both games contained within them disturbing elements of the unreconstructed McClarenism which we were told had been overthrown.
At Manchester City Boro went into the game hampered by a familiar straitjacket of fear. Against a fragile side in free fall and there for the taking, Boro opted, instead of attack, for the old discredited cautious and sterile approach: rigid defence, square passing and fruitless possession interrupted only by the occasional hoof forward, in theory to the isolated one (and a half) up front but in practice straight to opposition defenders.
Ugo Ehiogu – remember him, one of Boro’s big money legion of the damned – gave the game away at half time on Sky when he admitted the game plan had been to ‘keep the crowd quiet for 20 minutes’ before hoping to nick something on the break, thus conceding the initiative to the opposition and, when they scored, leaving a team mentally prepared for containment chasing the game. Hmmmm. Sound familiar?
Against Watford there was an even more inexcusable example of one of the most annoying aspects of the former Great Architect’s methodology as new broom Southgate opted for the grand positional tinkering that had us bamboozled so often under McClaren.
The only consistently creative force was played out of position to accommodate the return of a player who had been out for eight weeks and was untried in the role he was given – and in which he lasted about 20 minutes before being switched out to play on his wrong foot on the right. Meanwhile the best performing centre-back so far this season was again pushed to left back where he is uncomfortable and a perfectly good full-back dropped to allow an as yet less than sparkling defensive pairing to continue in the middle.
At risk of sounding like Bernie, it was square pegs in round holes. Ah seyz that. Sometimes teams can live with an enforced positional change; Lee Cattermole played on the right against Everton and was solid with flashes of creativity and it was a success if not the ideal solution to an on-going problem. But he can’t do it every week because it goes against instinct and demands different strengths to those he possesses. And when several players are out of position the problem is magnified and it introduces the potential for mistakes, leaves the machine backfiring and hands a well drilled opposition a marked advantage.
Boro are in a mess and the pressure of damaging results, an unbalanced squad and shapeless performances has forced Southgate to retreat from his stated attacking ideology into the tried and tested strategies that were employed by McClaren and his coaching staff in recent years, but without the conviction or the success. It is the worst of both worlds.
Southgate must decide once and for all if his side is going to play attacking football or stick with it. And he must decide on his best team and stick with that too. It doesn’t help the team to drop Pogotetz from central defence to allow the ÃÂ£6m signing to play and it helps it even less if he is shifted to a position where he has always looked exposed and accident prone. If Mad Dog is to be dropped from the middle so be it, but leave Taylor continue in a position where he has rarely let us down and where he can add an attacking dimension that Pogo can not.
He must also identify quickly those players who can not play the way he wants to and prepare to replace them in January. The stakes are too high to allow him to either try to effect his changes with inadequate personnel or muddle through with half-hearted McClarenism.
There are some big decisions to make if Boro are to salvage the season and build a platform for the future ack from the last two damaging defeats and we must hope that Southgate has the bottle to make them. We can’t afford to slip into the old McClarenist negativism. The Riverside crowd won’t buy it. We won’t get fooled again.