“YOU LEARN a lot from your defeats,” said rookie boss Gareth Southgate after his soft centred team suffered another blow at White Hart Lane. After a lot of bruising dug-out education the Gate is looking increasingly world-weary and frustrated as his tinkering with personnel, culture and tactics struggle to transform a pedestrian side.
So what lessons have we learned from this defeat? Sadly, very little we didn’t already know.
Concentrate from the kick-off immediately after you score a goal? Surely the penny should have dropped on that one after the two previous games saw goals – and ultimately precious points – surrendered cheaply within three minutes of a breakthrough.
Villa hit back quickly as Boro’s generous midfield opened up to let Petrov free into the box. Manchester United hit back quickly as Boro’s sluggish midfield failed to pick up Fletcher’s run. Spurs hit back as Boro’s slack midfield left space… you get the picture.
Whatever happened to the famous Bill Beswick “red zones”? Tighten up. Close down. Focus. Even cliche-spouting small screen microphome men know the score. The seventies was a tape loop of commentators warning gravely that “you are never more vulnerable than when you have just scored.” Maybe we should get Motty in to do the team talk.
Boro have little punch up front? Well, we knew that too. Yakubu looks a shadow of his former self. Where is the player that ripped into defences? Who barged defenders aside and had a real hunger for goal? Yes, it has been a season of disruption and the absence of Viduka, the departure of Hasselbaink and the failure of the second string to step up to the plate have piled pressure on him – but he has not responded to the challenge of being the main man. That leaves Boro shot shy and relying ever more on Plan B.
Against Spurs, as against United and as against a host of teams this season, Boro have relied on their strongest componant – the defence – to soak up the pressure in the hope that they would get the odd rare breaks and maybe create one or two chances and snatch a goal.
As a pragmatic approach to answer an injury crisis or visit Old Trafford, Stamford Bridge and the Emirates Stadium that makes sense as a stop gap strategy but Boro can’t afford to gamble their Premiership status on establishing it as the norm. That hands over the initiative, invites pressure and swings the percentages in favour of the opposition. Boro can’t afford to gift goals because with such a one-dimensional midfield bereft of creativity or pace to break forward in numbers there is no guarantee they can claw it back.
Maybe Gareth learned that George Boateng is struggling? Again, we knew that. He knew and has admitted he has been off the pace, has been distracted by the responsibilities of the armband and has playing through the pain barrier after an early season knock left him with fluid on his knee that restricts his mobility. He told the Gazette only last week that he knew he could probably do with a few weeks rest. Well now he will get them.
The skipper was probably at fault for the Spurs winner as he failed to pick up the runner and soon after, although he was mugged by a posse of opposition players in a brief outbreak of handbags, his frustrations boiled over and he reacted. A red card for violent conduct will bring a three game ban that will hurt Boro at a team when they are looking vulnerable.
But those detractors who see the red card and subsequent ban as a relief are in for a shock. Without Boateng, even an off colour one, Boro will lack steel and nouse in the area where games are won and lost in a string of massive games: Wigan, two points ahead are next at home, then Fulham away and then a Riverside clash with a revived Charlton side who are climbing out of their coffin.
There is no-one to replace him. His absences through injury in the past two seasons have stung and the problem of cover has not been completely resolved. Battling Lee Cattermole shows great promise, enthusiasm and energy but is far from the final product – and besides will be banned himself for Wigan – while Fabio Rochemback, who has played as a defensive midfielder for Barcelona and Sporting is well short of what is required in that role in the Premiership. He has no pace, a powder-puff tackle, squanders possession and has a tendency to go walkabout leaving inviting gaps in his wake. Where’s Doriva when you need him?
Has Southgate learned he is well short in midfield? Boro have been crying out for width and pace on the right for three years now – at least sinc ethe departure of Geremi – and despite playing protracted footsie with a string of likely solutions the problem has not been solved. Likewise the absence of genuine proven creativity in the midfield, the “Bolo Zenden” role, is an on-going problem too. We can not wait for the kids to come through in.
Without these vital cogs the Boro machine can not work to full capacity and to resolve that will take cash. Boro may be reluctant to fund such recruitment, citing falling crowds or the need to be prudent. That will be a false economy and a massive gamble.
The crucial thing that Southgate should have learned – but will almost certainly not admit to – is that Boro are now deep in a relegation battle. There is no avoiding the reality of that. To say that “we are too good to go down” is delusional, dangerously complacent and lies in the face of facts. This is a team that has lost to trapdoor dancers Watford and Sheffield United.
Boro try to play good football in flashes and when they do get forward in numbers the movement hints at a bright future with just a little fine-tuning but they are not consistently creative enough to hurt teams. And they are not physical enough to play a high-tempo direct style and muscle teams out of games, and especially in those grinds with the teams geared up to scrap for their lives. That leaves the onus on a solid defence, the on-going brilliance of Jonathan Woodgate and the penetration and pinpoint crossing of Stewy Downing.
The next run of games will clarify the situation: Wigan (H), Fulham (A), Charlton (H), Everton (A), Blackburn (A), Sheffield United (H) and Charlton (A). If we haven’t learned the lessons and starting putting the theory into practice after that it may be too late.