BORO must quickly prepare a case for the defence if they are to avoid being dragged into a relegation battle. Boro have stuttered through a generously gentle opening set of fixtures that were scripted to set up a campaign fought in the top half to find themselves uncomfortably close to the drop zone – and now the fixtures take on a far more intimidating complexion.
After the tough trip to Everton, Boro must go to Manchester for clashes with revitalised City and awesome United either side of a home encounter with Chelsea and unless they pick up some bonus points from that sticky sequence the scene will be set for an uncomfortable autumn.
Much of the angst in the crowd over the recent disappointing run has been focussed on the toothless front-line. Injuries have left Boro striker light – even the only proven goal-getter Mido looks to be sidelined again – while the flurry of chances being created as Gareth Southgate’s side press forward with an entertaining style are being squandered with a frequency that is prompting dark fears that the barren spell is down to something far more corrosive than mere bad luck.
But just as worrying is that the defence appears to be in crisis too. The once impressively organised and miserly rearguard is now conceding almost two goals a game, a level of leakage that is unacceptable if the team are to entertain any hopes of a top half finish.
In the eight league games so far Boro have leaked 13 goals with seven in the last three. Two at home to Blackburn, two at home to Newcastle, two at home to Sunderland, three at West Ham – all games the spinners say Boro dominated and were ‘unlucky’ to lose. The only clean sheet – common currency last term – came at home to Birmingham and that should ring alarm bells.
Just as worrying as the frequency is the manner in which the goals are going in. Against Everton – a team that started with six defenders on the pitch as boss David Moyes was looking for his own first clean sheet – both goals were bitterly disappointing.
The opener was like a knife to the heart as Yakubu, a player who seemed contractually obliged not to contest a header at Boro, climbed to nod goalwards from a corner and although Jonathan Woodgate did well to head clear off the line it looped to unmarked Joleon Lescott to head it back and in from close range.
But Boro’s defending was in chaos before the ball even reached Yakubu. Shaky shot-stopper Mark Schwarzer came out to punch clear but missed after he tangled with Andrew Taylor, who was supposedly guarding the near post but had drifted out following the path of the ball.
A failure to communicate with defenders is becoming a costly habit for the Aussie. Against
West Ham a mix-up saw Luke Young stab in an own goal when Schwarzer, with a better view of the flight of the ball, should have come to collect.
The slack marking for the Everton corner left the pundits bemused. On Match of the Day 2 Lee Dixon and Neil Warnock were scathing about Boro’s organisation in a routine dead ball situation that they should control. They highlighted the failure of the men on the post to stay there, the
collision and the inability to mark and block Lescott even though Boro outnumbered seven to four and asked why a team managed by a former defender could commit such cardinal sins.
The second goal was equally disturbing because it prompted an outbreak of deja vu. Goal scorer Steven Pienaar passed the ball out wide to Arteta then broke past static George Boateng and Fabio Rochemback into the box while David Wheater marked space rather than go to the man.
That was infuriating as it is now three games running that a midfielder has scampered unhindered through the heart of Boro’s defence to score. Lee Bowyer did it at West Ham, sparking a move from just outside the centre-circle then skipping unchallenged past the midfield pair and two defenders to get on the end of the final ball to rifle in.
Then against Sunderland, the opener came as Grant Leadbitter broke forward through midfield unmarked when he got the spawny deflection in the box that teed up his shot, an example of “making your own luck in this game.”
There was an argument against West Ham and Sunderland that it was having a more creatively minded engine room that allowed such unchecked movement but for Everton Boateng was there to shore it up and stop such a run and it made little difference.
One of the problems is that having set their stall out to play attacking football Boro are more vulnerable when they lose the ball. In getting more men further forward they are leaving gaps for the opposition to exploit. For instance, twice at Upton park Boro lost possession with six or
seven men in the Hammers box to be undone with swift balls down the flanks, first Carlton Cole racing past where Taylor should have been then on the other side Etherington through where Young should have been to set up goals against a back-pedalling defence that were hopelessly out of position.
That comes with the territory. If Boro are to continue to play an attacking style there will be times they get caught – but the whole team must be drilled to expect it and concentrate to pick up the movement. And the defence must be at playing at their peak to make it a viable
proposition. Arsenal and Man United can do it because they are excellent at the back and have disciplined sprinters in the middle – and that is where Boro must tighten up first, closing down danger quickly and tracking back to prevent the backline becoming exposed must be every bit as important as looking for the killer through ball or making cavalier runs forward.
It is not helped that key components of Boro’s rearguard have yet to hit top gear. The season started with a centre-back crisis but bar Wheater – one of the outstanding performers so far – we now have a first choice rearguard although Woodgate and Young missed pre-season and so are playing their way to fitness while in the frontline.
Whatever the mitigation, Boro are in a defensive crisis that must be solved swiftly. If Boro are shipping goals are such an alarming rate it piles the pressure on the frontmen to score more and while we are carving out the chances no one is sticking them away with the regularity needed to compensate. And there as there is not enough of a cushion between us and the basement to go into the next few fixtures in the same stuttering form.
There is much talk about the entertaining football, and after the dark days of McClarenism it is a merciful relief, but it brings with it massive risks, especially if goals are not flowing freely at the other end.
Boro are not in danger yet but playing good football and losing eats into confidence (the fans as much as the players) and will pile on the pressure to change the way they play. We don’t want to throw the baby out with the bath water but neither do we want the season to be a washout and if there is to be progressive football it must be based on solid foundations.
They must stop the rot quickly – starting from the back.