OH DEAR. That was demoralising. Not just the scale of the defeat and the impact on the political and psychological landscape of Teesside. Also the manner of the defeat.
West Brom looked fitter, faster, stronger and hungrier for the victory that was hugely important for both sides. They were organised, motivated and up for it. Boro were overwhelmed by the Baggies intensity and desire and that is deeply worrying.
Boro were shapeless. Downing in the middle was a mess. With two non-specialist flankers on the wings drifting inside there was no outlet down either side when Boro’s full-backs got the ball, preventing effective quick counters and forcing play into the congested middle where West Brom were first to the ball every time – especially after Digard, one of the few better performers, had been pedalled.
A further layer of tactical confusion was created by playing three player up-front with a tendency to wander. Downing was given the free role in the middle but Tuncay is by nature a wandering star while Alves also drifts out wide in order to cut in onto balls and shoot. But with the three of them in flux, whenever Boro got the ball at the back they looked up and there was no obvious out ball, no invitation to knock a ball down the channels or over the top because there was so often no-one there.
Southgate switched Tuncay and Downing after half an hour to try to rectify the situation but the game was gone by then. West Brom had the bit between their teeth – and the lead – and Boro were already engaged in damage limitation.
West Brom in contrast were knocking balls over the top for speedy Simpson and Fortune to burst onto or playing it out wide where they knew Brunt and Koren would be. It is indeed a simple game.
Boro were a mess in every area of the pitch. Alves missed four or five glorious chances – point blank headers, a close range effort and a one on one inside the box – and once again was the only real striking option. Where are the free-flowing breaking bodies from midfield? Where is Tuncay? Has he been kidnapped and replaced by a replicant with the footballing skills of Phil Whelan? And what of Gary O’Neil? Rarely can a player have had so little an impact on a game. And Shawky? Stewie, if anything, was trying too hard.
At the back once again Ross Turnbull prevented a defeat becoming an embarrassment but he was left exposed time and time again as West Brom’s strikers simply burst past a static back line. They could not cope with the pace of the front two nor the movement of Albion’s wide players. And even the simple tasks – hoofing the ball clear when under pressure – were sloppily executed with clearances falling at an opposition player’s feet 30 yards out almost every time.
After the game the gaffer tried to suggest that the scoreline wasn’t a reflection of the game and that Boro had chances, and that is true, they did. But they were also systematically monstered by a fired-up team that sniffed weakness and ruthlessly exploited it. If Southgate can argue that Boro should or could have had three goals then Mogga could respond by saying his side could or should have had six.
Yes, you can point to the goal being scored from the first phase, second phase grey area in the offside rules but it was a weak defensive header in the first place, no midfielder had tracked back with Brunt and besides, with 86 minutes to go there was plenty of time to retrieve the game.
Boro clearly need reinforcements in every department. Both the Baggies new strikers Simpson and Fortune would walk into Boro’s side on current form and both arrived on loan, one from Arsenal, one of the clubs we have good links with and a lot of recent traffic with. Why wasn’t he spotted and brought in?
West Brom fans started to chant “you’re getting sacked in the morning” after the second goal and some Boro fans joined in. We may not be at that point – Steve Gibson’s history suggests he has the sticking power to resist that kind of punter pressure – but the season is clearly at crisis point.
“It couldn’t get much worse,” admitted Southgate after the game. But the fear is that it actually could. Boro were kept out of the bottom three because of two late Chelsea goals but we can’t rely on other team’s results to salvage us every week. At some point we have to take control of our own destiny. No win in ten, turned over by the rock bottom team, few options left in a thin and fragile squad… where to from here?
And here’s this week’s Big Picture column in which I argue that Boro are down but not out. There is a long way to go and it is time to knuckle down, unite behind the cause and and start scrapping.