IS 100 GAMES too soon to judge on Gareth Southgate? It is not completely unknown for some Boro fans to take a whole 100 seconds to make an assessment of a player but the evolution of an entire philosophy, the creation of a balanced unit and the ability to get all the parts working in harmony is a different issue. For one thing, at least there is the possibility that some people may change their mind.
Gareth Southgate has just clocked up his century of games in charge but his team is still a work in progress. It has taken him two summers to clear the deadwood, trim the wagebill and reallocate the resources to rebuild his squad and get in the players that suit the high-tempo creative style he wants. Until we see that team really tested it would not be fair to judge.
That said, we are rapidly approaching ‘make your mind up time.’
The boss had admitted that this is the season he must deliver. The two terms of rebuilding and fine-tuning have shown glimpses of a side capable of flashes of brilliance as it has been feeling its way forward to a refreshing, eye-pleasing style delivered within the confines of a prudent financial model. That bodes well for the future and fully deserves support.
But the two campaigns have also revealed recurring problems – inability to score, late goals conceded, brittle on the road – seemingly going unaddressed which have undermined any obvious progress up the table or certainly any prospect of Great Leap Forward. Those must solved this term if the Southgate project is not to disintegrate, floundering in lower mid-table while supporters – still largely supportive – slip back into the downward cycle of bickering, grumbling and eventually deserting.
Looking back over the first 100 games under Southgate it struck me how, despite the team playing “good football” and trying to get forward and entertain – that is become the very antithesis of the essence of discredited McClarenism – there were so very few obvious highs. The team has played well in spells, often for up to 70 or 80 minutes in games, only to crash and burn and make impotent the good work in a short period of costly chaos.
The highs, games like the 5-1 thrashing of Bolton, the 2-1 Riverside win over then unbeaten Arsenal and the 8-1 hammering of Manchester City or a string of spirited draws against the big boys, are far out-mumbered by the depths of games where it all unravelled or where the team simply never competed:; games like the 4-0 home mauling by Portsmouth, a 3-0 tonking at West Ham, those late kicks in the teeth to Sunderland and worse of all, the sickening rock bottom FA Cup exit to Cardiff when the door to Wembley was swinging temptingly ajar.
I remain supportive – I still believe that Boro are two, maybe three, players away from being a very good side and that the shape and style ticks a lot of boxes and that the team are playing the kind of football we all want to see, with pace and passion and a commitment to creativity – but recognise that crunch time is coming and unless there is tangible progress this term that the popular support for Southgate could start to fade rapidly and that we will be treading water again. And if you stand still in football you go backwards.
And as a final note here is the team that Southgate started out with in August 2006 in 3-2 defeat at newly promoted Reading, a game that Boro were two up in after 19 minutes but contrived to lose with a spectacular collapse. Would we win that game now?
READING 3 BORO 2