BORO were steamrollered by a rampant Manchester United at Old Trafford and on paper the scoreline will have confirmed all the dark fears of the growing legion of jittery supporters in a pre-panic state of anxiety. But while Boro leaked four goals to last week’s two against Chelsea they were not twice as bad. Far from it.
Boro looked far more spirited, resolute and efficient as a team. They defended with dogged determination against a team chasing a century old net-busting record and for an hour looked to have their measure; they held their shape and discipline well and looked focused throughout; they got forward with zest and at times ran United ragged; a string of key players put in excellent displays that bode well for the future; and there were spells of impressive fluid interplay, crisp passing and incisive movement . It sounds daft but I came away from a four goal defeat – a fifth reverse in succession – lifted and far more confident that this team can still gel and flourish, and I’m sure I am not the only one.
But of course, they still lost, are still in a precarious position and time is pressing. Troubled Boro now go into a run of four games that will shape the season and will need to apply the best bits of the United game over the full 90 in every one of those and beyond. Some observations:
Audience Hushed In The Theatre Of Dreams: Given a crowd of 75,000 and a display of such awesome non-stop attacking play, athleticism and sublime skills you would expect Old Trafford to be a cauldron of noise and passion, an overwhelming aural attack of appreciation and urging. In fact it was bubbling away in just one small pocket.
The 2,000 or so travelling Teessiders kept up a non-stop stream of noise throughout the game and while no one would suggest that it was enough to drown out the home fans on the few occasions that they did burst into life, the Boro fans were certainly the most constant part of the soundscape in this magnificent arena.
From the off they made their presence known, urged their heroes on and taunted the assembled United glory-hunters, prawn sandwich munchers and awe-struck tourists: “We support our local team”, “shall we sing a song for you” and “4-1 and you still won’t sing” was the sound-track of the day as Boro claimed some kind of moral victory on the supporting front.
Not that Boro are supporting supermen. It would appear to be the norm that away fans out-sing the placid ocean of apathy that is a Premiership crowd, no matter how big it is. Always packed, and always with reason to cheer, Old Trafford was this week named the fourth quietest ground in the top flight, which is as damning an indictment of the ersatz atmosphere that over stewarded seats, high ticket prices skewing demographics and a booming PA as you are likely to find.
It also raises questions about why Boro are so quiet at home. The Riverside is no different. The cultural dynamics are identical – the rowdy working class lads have been priced out and the ones that remain do not sit together in sufficient numbers to out-sing MMP’s ill-judged music or overcome the weight of tut-tutted condemnation from the passive cinema style masses. Bar “the loudest run out in the Premiership”, the now rare goals for the home side and the nasty edge derby matches the Riverside can be as snoozy a stadium as any.
It is time for the club to call a forum of fans from all stands, the fanzine fraternity and The Twe12th Man and try to tackle this by reconfiguring the ground, reorganising the way the PA is used and reinvigourating the crowd to maximise and direct the undoubted passion.
Tuncay Revels In Freedom To Roam: Boro’s main source of attacking enterprise at Old Trafford was the until recently frustrated Fenerbahce free-styler Tuncay. Which was a pleasure to see and a great relief.
His signing raised a string of questions both tactical and strategic: he appeared to be first allocated the right-sided role, a job superceded by the purchase of Gary O’Neil. Then he was penciled in as a frontman alongside either Yakubu or Aliadiere… but that changed too as the Yak left to warm the bench at Everton and instead Mido was brought in as the cutting edge. It appeared to leave the Turk without any definable role, no starting place in the first choice XI and raising a lot of eyebrows and hackles, not least back in Istanbul.
He has been in search of a role in his short spell at Boro. He showed in flashes at West Ham that he could rip through defences and get into dangerous positions but also that clinical finishing was not neccessarily his strong point. He has shown a willingness to work non-stop, to cover every square inch of the pitch, to swap flanks with Downing to keep the opposition on their toes and to drop deep and demand the ball. What he hadn’t showed though was that all his endeavour could be harnessed by Boro to hurt teams.
So it was a relief to see him given licence to roam at Old Trafford rather than shackled in a rigid role that did not allow his obvious talents to shine. He riped into United in a sparkling first half that had their international defence rocking. His movement across the United line from every channel tore holes to be exploited, his link-up with the midfield and with Aliadiere gave Boro a potent punch going forward and his array of tricks more than matched the fancy Dan footwork of Ronaldo, and on the day was more effective.
For Boro’s strike he left hapless John O’Shea dizzy with a series of step-overs then lost his with a neat double-back and turn to leave him free on the edge of the box to pick out Aliadiere and tee up the glancing header that was the first goal scored by an away team at Old Trafford this term. Later in that half he repeated the run to chip to the far post for Stewie Downing to flash a header just outside the post that was inches away from being the second.
The problem for Boro will be to utilise this ability while eliminating confusion and risk. At one point as he cut up the left flank he found himself within yards of both Downing and Andrew Taylor and all three looking at each other to see who would overlap while at others his marauding runs left gaps. They will need plugging if Boro are not to be punished. On balance though Tuncay can be a potent force if Boro can square that circle and could yet be the key player if the much trumpeted attacking play is to be delivered effectively.
“A Turbo Charged Robbie Mustoe:” What a fantastic player Gary O’Neil is! He ticks all the boxes for me: he has energy, pace, passion, an instinct to get forward, a willingness to defend, excellent close control, superb distribution and great vision.
In recent weeks he has been by far the most effective and consistent performer week-in, week-out and is the only new signing that has banished the question-marks and moved into a position where his position in the team, his fitness and his contribution is beyond doubt.
At Old Trafford he was brilliant. He played with real zest and bite but he is far more than just a turbo-charged Robbie Mustoe. At times he looked like a genuine flanker, getting behind defenders with pace and trickery to slot dangerous balls into the box. At others he looked like a central midfielder, either closing and squeezing in a holding role or surging through gaps to get into offensive roles in support. He powered through tackles and deployed some neat little jinks and drag-backs to ghost past some of the best players in the country.
Although brought in to solve the ‘right sided problem’ I can see him as the mainstay in the heart of a new look midfield unit, effective in either a solid four or an attacking five alongside Arca and with Cattermole plugging the gap when either go forward. That would pace, power and creativity and the possibility of width on both flanks or giving a firm foundation for Tuncay to roam free.
O’Neil is the future. He is the signing that really offers the possibility of excitement because you need to get the building blocks in place before the entertainers can really shine.
Young Lions Take Pride Of Place: It was day that could mark a revolution in the Riverside pecking order. Lee Cattermole took his place in the starting line up ahead of stuttering skipper George Boateng putting down a marker for the future, David Wheater returned with his back-to-basics approach after a nervous and disappointing display by Chris Riggott against Chelsea and for the second week running Lee Dong Gook was behind a striker that started the season as little more than a bit part player.
Boateng has long been the mainstay of the Boro midfield through a golden era of unprecedented achievement but over the past year his powers have faded markedly. This season he has lost his automatic right for a central berth. He has been pushed out wide right and slotted in at right back for spells in games and has started to become one of the those who regularly see the fourth official holding up his number. Now, with the belief that he is the weakest link now widespread, he has finally been dropped in favour of the heir presumptive Cattermole.
It was always going to happen. The new expansive style has shown the Boat’s restrictions: he doesn’t have the pace to get forward or the pin-point distribution to take advantage when others do. And perhaps more importantly, the new style has seen Boro push forward in numbers and when attacks break down there are big gaps left open and the Dutch destroyer no longer has the legs to close them. A number of Boro’s goals against this season can be left at his doorstep as he has failed to close down runners from midfield, been forced into conceding dangerous free-kicks because he can’t catch his man or surrendering possession with a poor pass.
Cattermole is far from the finished product – he can misplace a pass every bit as expensively as Boateng and he is sometimes rash in the tackle – but his weaknesses will be gradually ironed out with experience and on the plus side he offers incredible energy and commitment and a willingness to bust a gut for the shirt, and as we have seen, he has a hell of a shot on him too. He also offers an intangible link with the crowd that you can only get with local lads who really understand how important the club his to the town and the supporters.
Wheater’s swift return and the impending return to fitness of Emanuel Pogatetz (plus let us not forget the brooding perma-crocked presence somewhere of Boro’s million pound a game man Robert Huth) has probably hastened Chris Riggott’s departure. Over the past year whenever he has had his chance he has frozen. It is time to cash in.
And what to say about Lee Dong Gook? That Tom Craddock went on before him last week against Chelsea spoke volumes. That Ben Hutchinson went on before him at Old Trafford underlined that to the point where the PA may as well have announced: “Taxi for Lee”. It is great shame but the ill-fated move has not worked out. He makes good runs and has a nice touch but whatever it is, he hasn’t got it. He has no physical presence, no clinical edge and does not scare defenders. Hutchinson has scored more Premiership goals in his 45 minutes than the Korean in his ten months and countless chances and against United the youngster ran at players, linked up well and looked more likely to make something happen than LDG. And at least Craddock and Hutchinson offer the prospect of improvement.