THREE games in and Gordon Strachan is starting to slowly stamp his mark on the team.
Slowly. Too slowly for many supporters, true. Especially those that thought getting shot of Southgate was a magic bullet solution. And so slowly that any hopes of promotion are now precariously balanced against the swift expenditure of time and games. But the signs are there.
Admittedly one point from nine and just one goal along the way may not be much to shout about, and the new boss admitted himself that he was only happy with 30 minutes of a disappointing 1-1 home draw with Nottingham Forest.
And there were a lot of familiar Southgatian fatal flaws on show, so much so that there was plenty of post-match phone-in and concourse grumbling that nothing at all has changed and the managerial switch was pointless.
You know the story: over-elaboration; and a lack of the teeth to make the obligatory spell of territorial superiority count; the inability to hold on to a lead or to close out the game; a second half paralysis in the face of a spirited fight-back by a more determined and hungrier outfit; and once again the fatal peppering of cheap free- kicks conceded around the box, one of which inevitably led to the sickening goal.
If the truth be told Boro were lucky to escape with a point and but for a series of brilliant blocks by much-maligned Brad Jones Forest could easily have romped to an embarrassing emphatic victory.
It was another run-through of the Groundhog Day script that has sucked the soul from all but the most innately upbeat of optimists, compromised early hopes of a swift top flight return and ushered in a renewed ascendency of time honoured Teesside defeatist cynicism.
But despite all that weighing heavily in the debit column, there were small tell-tale signs of a change in approach and line-up – including some that chimed with growing demands from a knowledgeable crowd – that offer some hope of concrete progress.
The most visible and symbolic change came as the captaincy was taken from ailing David Wheater and handed to leader by example Gary O’Neil.
In recent seasons the armband has proved toxic. Since Gareth Southgate stepped up from skipper to supremo the responsibility of the role weighing down and drained form from in quick succession Mark Schwarzer, George Boateng, Julio Arca, Stewart Downing and Emanuel Pogatetz.
Only Robert Huth has worn the skipper’s skill-sucking dark-matter armband with any conviction and responded to promotion with improved displays, consistency and a heightened sense of inspirational leadership – and that was all too brief.
When he left the role fell on Wheater’s shoulders by default. O’Neil then was out having stomach surgery. Of the squad that travelled to Bristol City after Huth’s exit, Wheater was the only viable choice; the only other senior player on the day guaranteed a first team start was mercurial but meek Adam Johnson.
Wheater, one of our own though he may be, has struggled this term to reach the eye-catching early high standards that earned him an England call-up. And that is a generous assessment. A harsher one would point the finger at him for string of costly late lapses that started the day Huth walked out of the door.
After four clean sheets in succession alongside Huth, Wheater has had to learn on the hoof to play with teh more cavalier Sean St Ledger in a porous back four in constant flux – Saturday saw Boro’s 11th permutation at the back – and at times the local hero has looked uncomfortable and exposed, clunky and flat-footed. Calls are growng for him to be dropped for a breather and with Riggott back to full fitness it may be an option.
Wheater needs to focus on his own role, getting back to his best and developing his relationship with St Ledger. The armband is a distraction he can do without and Strachan taking it off him is sure sign that the problem has been recognised.
O’Neil is the most experienced, most influential and most consistent performer in the team and is the obvious choice to take on the mantle. Let’s hope the cursed captaincy does not now infect him too.
Another welcome change that hinted at thing sto come was the switch of Rhys Williams to right-back. He had a torrid second half but nevertheless the move to his natural position was a two fold statement of intent.
Firstly it suggested the end of an era of ’round pegs in square holes’ and secondly it has signalled that Strachan may already have decided some players in the squad are not in his first team thinking.
The dynamic Aussie started well in his emergency role as a makeshift midfielder this term but the quick-fix was far from ideal and soon started to show the fault lines. His lack of specialist experience and lack of creative instinct left Boro one dimensional in the middle, especially alongside the equally conservative Didier Digard or Isaiash Osbourne.
The arrival of Osbourne and the move of O’Neil back into the middle has signalled Strachan’s recognition that a makeshift mono-paced engine room is a major problem.
It has meant the move of Arca out onto the right which is far from ideal – but that has the feel of a short-term fix heavy with sub-text. Yet putting left footer Arca starting on the right ahead of several players who see that as their natural berth raises questionmarks over both Mark Yeates and Marvin Emnes and suggests that position could be a spending priority when Strachan starts to rebuild.
Similarly, the relatively inexperienced Williams slotting into right-back ahead of Justin Hoyte, who has played there in the Champions League, calls into question the ex-Arsenal man’s job security, especially as Tony McMahon was on the bench ahead of him.
And playing patched-up Pogatetzt on the left for solidity and experience in defence must worry fit and available Jonathan Grounds and Andrew Taylor who have been found wanting there this season.
Up front two arrivals on loan – Bent and Kitson – have already marked out Strachan’s intentions and again it doesn’t look good for Emnes.
There is much work still to be done and the feeling is growing that if the play-offs are to be achieved then there will need to be major surgery in January to reshape the squad in Strachan’s image.
Meanwhile the style has changed subtley too. There is more passing out from the back, a higher tempo early on and an increased emphasis on ball retention in the middle and more movement up front to create options.
The next stage is to make it gel. Several times against Forest Kitson or Lita made well timed runs behind the defence but the ball was still being played sidewards along the half-way line and never picked them out. That will have to change.
Strachan is off the mark now with his first point. It will take time to shape his team. But Boro don’t have a lot of that left if it is to happen this season.