IT’S CRUNCH time: the next six games include four six pointers that will shape the season. In the next month Boro play Charlton home and away, Blackburn on the road and Sheffield United at the Riverside in a New Years’ Day clash that will demand more than just resolution.
The signs are not good. No matter which way you slice the statistics Boro are a side deep in trouble. The one dimensional team have now taken 17 points from 17 games to clock up what appears to be an unspectacular but solid one point a game average but the seasonally adjusted trend is markedly down: two points from the last 12, three from the last 15. That is a significant drift towards trouble.
Here’s something even more worrying: apart from Yakubu’s penalty in the 2-1 win over Everton, the team have not scored in the first half in nine games at the Riverside this season. In fact if you include the Notts County League Cup clash it is ten games without an opening period goal from open play. That is shocking.
Now, it has been apparent all season – in fact, for most of the last few years – that Boro have purposefully started slowly with a cautious game plan that aims to take the sting out of the opposition. That is the theory. In fact, a policy of sitting deep and slowing it down surrenders the initiative to the visitors, lets them determine the tempo and pile on the early pressure. It also leads to the crowd getting inceasingly frustrated and has directly contributed to falling crowds.
You can see the logic. Most of the players were brought in by McClaren and have been coached by the former manager’s cautious co-thinkers for long enough for it to become second nature. In theory it is the style that should suit the team best. But it isn’t working.
Boro have been ripped apart in the first half by Chelsea, Portsmouth, Newcastle, Man United, Liverpool and Wigan, who may have been four up at half-time but for Schwarzer. From those games Boro changed the shape to come from behind for the only time this season to beat Chelsea and weathered the storm to grab points from Newcastle and Wigan.
They were sluggish and unimpressive against Blackburn and West Ham too but were never overwhelmed, as much because of the equally conservative approach of the visitors as anything. From those games they slipped up against Rovers and beat West Ham, both by a single goal when most observers would argue both sides were there for the taking.
In handing over the initiative Boro are running the risk of leaking an early goal and the evidence suggests that if they go behind they do not have the formation or personnel to get the two goals back they then need to win the games. It is a high risk strategy.
It suggests a deeply worrying dimension to Boro’s matchday mentality that they stick with a system that is patently not bringing rewards. In makes sense to keep it tight against Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United who have blistering pace up front and players who can forward to hurt teams from all over the pitch. None but the rashly cavalier would dispute that.
But shutting up shop and sitting back against weaker sides is suicidal. Why invite pressure? On so many dull days in the predictable Premiership games are so evenly balanced that the outcome revolves around just one or two chances. So why present them gift-wrapped by retreating from the first whistle and abdicating responsibility for setting the agenda.
If Boro take that approach to the big relegation battles coming up it is inviting the opposition to have a go, get forward and create chances. It swings the odds in their favour. Boro are not good enough to assume they can claw back such a cheaply discarded deficit.
Boro need to change tack and start attacking from the off. They have scored goals late on – two against Chelsea in the last ten minutes, late winners against Newcastle, West Ham and Everton the late leveller against Wigan – but so often they are left chasing the game after shooting themselves in the foot before the break.
They need to attack teams, take the initiative and force the opposition to sit back and defend. Let’s start sending the team out fired up and determined to get the first goal, and early enough to spark the crowd and set the tone for the whole game. Let’s start swinging the odds our way.