OF THE last nine matches straight after England international Boro have lost eight and drawn one. One point from 27! No matter how you look at it that is abysmal.
And it gets worse. In 15 games hot on the heels of the England sideshow in the Southgate era, Boro have won just one. One! And drawn three. So, six points from 45. That is more than just a statistical freak. That is a self destructive habit that must be quickly broken before it wrecks Boro’s lofty ambitions of top half status.
Jet-lag from sitting in the jump seat on the red eye, heads turned by Big Time Charlie glamour, sophisticated continental injuries, unfairly savaged by long distance bigots and boo-boys, tropical disease and a lack of preparation time back at the ranch for the next game… whatever, the coitus interruptus of mid-season international fixtures has left Boro’s season shattered.
Just when the team gets into a groove, builds up a bit of momentum and gets somewhere near a settled side with a shape and tempo that works the main components get shuttled around Europe to adopt a different style, pace and philosophy then limp back for the people who pay their wages with their heads in a whirl .
This season Boro have lost all four games immediately after the international pauses.
Worse still, they have lost eight out of the last nine games after these breaks, the other being a 2-2 draw at home to Newcastle back in August 2007.
And going right back over Southgate’s reign Boro have lost 11 out of 15, drawn three and won just one measly game – a 2-1 home win over Everton thanks to a Yakubu penalty – after one of these pesky pauses. That is catestrophic.
This term’s untimely interruptions have been followed by defeats at Liverpool and Portsmouth and at home to Chelsea then, the latest, to Bolton. At Liverpool – relatively early on and with the season barely underway – Boro battled superbly and were the best team for 85 minutes and were unlucky to get caught late on with a fluke deflection and a late sucker punch to lose 2-1. But the other three were, in truth, pale performances.
Against Portsmouth off-key Boro caved in under second half pressure, in the Chelsea game they were systematically taken apart and in the encounter against Bolton the game was effectively over before they decided to join in.
The Portsmouth game came after a cruel international break in September which magic man Tuncay, the mercurial link between midfield and attack and arguably the most important cog in the Middlesbrough machine, was injured. The Turk picked up a shin injury in a friendly against Belgium that left him sidelined for a month in which a Boro side bereft of his creativity lost four games out of five.
For the next break, Boro were dealt different problems that hampered the build up to the Chelsea Riverside rout. Stewart Downing had been left demoralised after failing to appear in the Belarus and Kazakhstan games, a hangover from his scapegoat status after the previous game against Andorra, and played with his chin on the floor.
Meanwhile distracted David Wheater looked like a man who had made a physically and emotionally draining – and totally pointless – midnight mercy dash straight after the Under-21s game to join England’s squad only to watch from the stands against Borat’s boys.
After that Boro put their season back together, the walking wounded returned and they built a five game unbeaten run that took them into the top half and prompted signs of rash optimism on Teesside. Naturally it all came apart again after another inexplicable round of midweek international friendlies.
Ironically, this time it was after midweek games in which Boro’s two brightest and most potent talents – Downing and Tuncay – put in pundit-pleasing performances and should have come back buzzing. Of course it is not as simple as that. Having played on Wednesday and flown home straight after both would have missed training on Thursday and so a day of tactical preparation was written off.
But it is the same for both sides, right? Hmmm. Bolton had two players who had been on international duty too but Gardner, who played for Jamaica, and Smolarek or Poland started on the bench. And plenty of other Premier League sides had key players jetting around the continent – and some even further afield – without such a spectacular record of caving in after every international break… although there were some strange results at the weekend and all the top four failed to score.
Players are drilled week in, week out in particular tactical nuances, moves and ploys. It becomes second nature. To suddenly be taken out of that environment and told to do something different, take up a different position, adopt a different shape can be disorientating. It is not unusual for player who excel at club level to be fish out of water for their national team, not neccessarily becuase they are exposed as poor players but more often because they can’t quickly enough adjust to a different mentality. And the same adjustment, not so marked admittedly but maybe enough to take an edge of their next game, has to be made in reverse when they return to their club.
That said, players good enough for international football should be adaptable enough and fit enough to focus and deliver in a club game three days later.And no-one would suggest we don’t want players at Boro who not considered good enough to be put to that test by being called up.
Besides, against Bolton Downing and Tuncay were among Boro’s better performers.
It was a collective failure to perform that cost the points and that has been the repeatedly self-destructive pattern now for two years which suggests the problem is mental as much as anything.
The disruption to routine raises practical questions about preparation. Having two, three, four or more key players missing makes it almost impossible to work on specific set-plays, to sit down and watch the videos to highlight the chief threats and then to get out on the training pitch and practice ways of countering them.
Internationals, not just the games but the different and unfamiliar training routines and preparation, seem to bring with them a higher than usual body count. We may be more acutely aware of our own club’s woes but these games seem to bring with them a disproportionate number of injuries. Or maybe they just sting more.
Losing Tuncay for a month in a friendly was a major blow. It is nice for the profile and the players’ self esteem but I actually hope our lads don’t get picked so as to minimise the risk (although with some you suspect they would still get crocked in a freak airport carousel accident). For Boro this is more important than most because the squad is too small to cope if players comes back with a knock or clearly jaded.
And the fixtures may be a factor too. Of the 15 games following the breaks in Southgate’s reign seven have been against Champions League sides – we have played Chelsea and Liverpool three times each and Arsenal once and taken just one point.
Another of the games was a derby with Newcastle, which was a 2-2 draw at home.
And two others were away at West Ham and we don’t have a great record down there.
Among the rest was Southgate’s very first game in charge, a 3-2 defeat at Reading immediately after an England friendly win over Greece in which Stewie had sizzled.
But that is just making excuses for a shocking sequence that defies any logic and has ripped a hole through Boro ambitions to be a top half team.
The over-crowded international calendar is not going away any time soon no matter what we club-centric international refusniks want (and personally I would scrap all mid-season friendlies and restrict competitive qualifiers to odd numbered summers) so this is a pressing problem – tactical or mental – that must be urgently addressed.
Boro can’t afford to write off six games a term and can afford still less to have precious and fragile momentum halted so easily.
BORO GAMES AFTER ENGLAND INTERNATIONALS
Aug 19 A Reading L 2-3
Sept 9 A Arsenal D 1-1
Oct 14 H Everton W 2-1
Nov 18 H Liverpool D 0-0
Feb 10 A Chelsea L 0-3
Mar 31 A West Ham L 0-2
Aug 26 H Newcastle D 2-2
Sept 15 A West Ham L 0-3
Oct 20 H Chelsea L 0-2
Nov 24 H Aston Villa L 0-3
Feb 23 A Liverpool L 2-3
Aug 23 A Liverpool L 1-2
Sept 13 A Portsmouth L 1-2
Oct 18 H Chelsea L 0-5
Nov 22 H Bolton L 1-3
P 15 W1 D3 L11 F12 A35 Pts 6