THERE are as many Boro fans with deep misgivings about the prospects of dramatic progress from Gareth Southgate’s squad as there are those who have bought into the idea of a new age of high energy attacking.
After the euphoria of the Birmingham game the positivists had plenty of evidence of progress but following a two steps forward, one step back performance at Upton Park the doubters will feel their own hand has been strengthened.
It was a strange game full of contradictions and for some it will be hard to understand why others saw much to draw comfort from – and even reasons to be optimistic – when the reality is that Boro were ripped apart three times at one end and failed to hurt the Hammers at the other.
“I told Gareth that in the Premiership you need to take your chances,” said Hammers boss Alan Curbishley after the game, rubbing salt in the wounds with his patronising assessment but also hitting the nail squarely on the head.
Boro had a string of gilt-edged opportunities to score and had they put them away they could have won. Jeremie Aliadiere latched onto a neat threaded pass after a superb show of strength and control on the ball that was the equal of anything Mark Viduka could have done but the Frenchman fired against the post .
And after the break substitute striker Tuncay three times had good chances to claw Boro back into the game but lobbed onto the bar, rolled one an inch wide after a slight deflection and also brought a great save from Rob Green when through on goal.
Depending on your perspective that either shows that Boro are striker light and deep in a cow/banjo scenario or that they are creating plenty of chances with their movement and pace and that the goals will eventually come.
The harsh reality is that the latter perspective is still based on hypotheticals and hope and unless the goals do start to flow from all areas of the pitch – and especially from the newly assembled strikeforce – then the optimism for the new season and the ambitions of a campaign fought out mainly in the top half will be stillborn.
Boro have let go Viduka go and cashed in on Yakubu after totting up the balance sheet and have made a theoretical and philosophical leap in the dark towards a new system that is based on impeccable logic but on unproven personnel.
Aliadiere, Tuncay and Lee Dong Gook have yet to score a Premiership goal between them but will be expected to be the cutting edge should Mido – the one striker with a track record in this league – get injured or spit his dummy (something he has an impressive history of) and when Egypt need him in the African Nations Cup in January.
The trio have missed a string of sitters between them to raise doubts that they possess the deadly clinical finishing that marks out real prolific marksmen and increasingly the doubters are suggesting that the previous duo, proven goal-getters who were good for double figures every season, would have buried them and concluded that for all the attacking intent the new look side are less likely to make enough of the increased volume of chances count when it matters.
The spin for the new style insists that moving away from reliance on just two strikers and a one dimensional approach is progress and that with everyone else chipping in the team are more versatile, more entertaining and more likely to move into the top half – yet teams who play like that and share the burden around are always claiming they are just one of those precious 20 goal-a-season strikers away from success.
It is clear that if Boro are to flourish with the new style and make it work effectively then they still need some extra punch up front and while it was wise not to panic on deadline day they should move quickly when the transfer window opens again.
But it was not just up front that there were problems.
After the wake-up call of a disallowed goal the defence were fantastic in the first half but went missing after the break and very few can be absolved of blame over the goals. Boro were chasing the game after the lightning strike after the break but there can be no excuse for the acres of spaces that Etherington repeatedly found down the right.
For the first goal no-one picked up Lee Bowyer’s run from the centre-circle into the box. For the second Taylor was caught cold in the opposition box as a Boro attack broke down and West Ham pushed a quick ball down his flank then Downing chased 40 yards but failed to either put in the tackle or bring down his man and when Cole put what looked a harmless cross into the box there was a lack of communication between Young and Schwarzer for the own goal .
And for the third Young was AWOL again and Woodgate was pulled out of position then Wheater should really have cut out the routine cross at the near post before Ashton brushed aside Taylor’s challenge at the back stick to score.
Any there was a lot of head scratching and muttering about “square pegs” when Gary O’Neil – mooted as the answer to the right side problem when he signed – came off the bench to make his debut on the left with Downing switching flanks.
So are there any positives to be taken out of a 3-0 defeat. “No, not really,” replied Southgate honestly in abrupt tones when asked that question after the game.
Yet there were positives, plenty of them, which is why so many supporters were if not heartened then certainly not distraught after a result that looks one sided on paper but was far from a hammering.
After a shaky start Boro took control in the first half. Defensively they were well organised, their industry in midfield rendered their West Ham counterparts anonymous and there was some delightful movement and passing that several times threatened to carve through the opposing backline.
Julio Arca was inspirational, dropping deep to either help out the defence with tackles and interceptions on the edge of the box or offer them an outlet, then linking up superbly with engine room partner Rochemback to spark attacks.
And up front Aliadiere was lively and looked to make runs that opened holes in the defence and gave his team-mates an attacking option every time.
Even after being mugged immediately after half-time Boro still showed some crisp passing and adventurous approach play as they tried to play their way back into the game and Tuncay looked sharp and skilful and always likely to make something happen. His control to cushion a high and awkward ball before slotting under Green and fractionally wide was sublime.
The injury to Aliadiere now gives the Turk a chance to show exactly what he can do and the option for Southgate to play him in his natural position, a fluid role behind the main striker. The prospect of allying his movement, work rate and control to Mido’s talents is genuinely exciting.
It is important though that the ingredients of this fledgling attacking zeal start to gel quickly. Results in style – starting with Sunderland – will boost the confidence of both team and crowd and strengthen Southgate’s hand but many more entertaining defeats and that will ebb away and the pressure will be on for a more functional approach
FORTUNE’S always hiding, as a line in the West Ham battle hymn has it – and Mark Schwarzer will feel the sting of that refrain in a deep and personal way with every visit because the Aussie shot-stopper has never had a slightest sniff of good luck at Upton Park.
To be fair it is not a happy hunting ground for Boro full stop. In ten Premiership visits Boro have lost eight, taken only four points and scored just two goals. The only win came late in the 1999-2000 season when Brian Deane got the only goal.
But for Schwarzer the trip is even more of a hoodoo and the sight of Luke Young flying through the air to stab home an own goal must have had an air of inevitability about it.
Schwarzer broke his leg coming out to make a challenge midway through the second half on his first appearance at Upton Park back in April 1997 – an injury that also cost him his place at Wembley and left Ben Roberts forever to be condemned to Boro’s collective memory as the man who leaked the opener in an unwanted record time of 43 seconds.
He has also fractured a collar bone at Upton Park in an aerial collsion (*), been on the wrong end of a 4-0 hammering, seen a screwed clearance drilled straight back into an empty net by Trevor Sinclair and expertly clawed a ball off the line only to be left frustrated when ref Steve Bennett awarded the goal.
And it is not just Upton Park that invites the hex, it is just leaving Teesside. The clash with the Hammers at Villa Park in the FA Cup semi-final two seasons ago ended with Schwarzer stretchered off with a broken cheekbone after catching a flying Dean Ashton elbow and led to his playing at Eindhoven looking like the Phantom of the Opera.
So to Schwarzer having only one real save to make – tipping over from Lee Bowyer’s rocket to the far top corner at the death – and still finishing up as 3-0 losers must seem routine.