HAVE Boro got the bottle for the battle? We are about to find out with four fixtures in ten tense days that will shape Boro’s destiny. Gareth Southgate’s struggling side play three of the bottom six in high-stakes basement battles in which all finesse or pretentions of total football must be junked in favour of a snarling streetfighting approach.
Because that is how the opposition will play. Charlton maybe not as they are demoralised, shapeless and have the body language of the beaten and Boro must be completely ruthless and batter them senseless. Defeat is not an option.
But Blackburn and Sheffield United will show feral bareknuckled malice from the off and that is bad news for Boro because their worst performances this season have come when the opposition have got right in their face, kicked and pushed and pulled and niggled and spat and played a physical high-tempo style.
Boro were muscled out of the games at Man City, Sheffield United and Watford and at home to Blackburn – defeats that were doubly painful because as well as denying us points they racked up in the credit column for the teams who now threaten our top flight status.
To be fair to those teams they have recognised their limitations, acknowledged they will never bamboozle teams with pretty little triangles and taken a strategic decision to play to their strengths: athleticism, pace, in-your-face pressure, long punts forward, dead balls and the percentage game played around the opposition’s box.
That ungraceful combat is a style that Boro have struggled ineptly with this term. Boro’s problem is that they fall between two stools. The team has been assembled with the intention of playing a patient, cautious passing game and competing on footballing terms with the top half teams but is not quite good enough to do it with the panache and penetration to pick up points.
Worryingly, that team has also fallen short when they have found up against the robust one-dimensional outfits who want to fight – and that is exactly the kind of teams they are directly up against now in the battle for Premiership survival. And there are more of those teams than outfits that will let them play a passing game so dealing with them is more pressing.
It is a long time since Boro had a spiteful, snarling player willing to put a foot in, charge around upsetting the opposition and ready to tackle his granny throat high from behind. A Paul Ince – Robbie Savage – Paul Dickov – Ian Baird character who would shed blood and leave bodies in his wake in a single-minded quest for victory. That is what we need right now.
That willingness to get involved physically has been lacking. It was noticeable at White Hart Lane last week when George Boateng got mugged on the touchline and within a heartbeat half-a-dozen Spurs players dived in to help out Zakora. Where were the Boro players? They arrived 30 seconds later. They should have been there in a flash. Right now we need everyone fighting for the collective and everyone should be willing to take a whack or two for the cause.
There is spirit there. In recent weeks both Pogatetz and Cattermole have dished out stinging on-the-pitch lectures to team-mates they felt were not pulling their weight. And there is bite too. You wouldn’t fancy being on the end of a Mad Dog, Huth or Boateng tackle. Now those qualities must be welded together with a new sense of urgency, passion and a vicious approach to every tackle, every loose ball. We need to get down and dirty and fight for dear life.
Forget one-twos and fancy flicks. When Boro go toe-to-toe with Blackburn and Sheffield United it will come down to workrate and bottle. Do Boro have it? They have shown it only in rare flashes of late. We must hope that it comes to the fore. Let’s see some Teesside steel!