TONY Mowbray served up a smart board tactical masterclass as battling Boro put in a solid 90 minute shift to beat Cardiff.
It was a spirited and steely display by a well organised, highly motivated and determined outfit and every player deserves to enjoy the plaudits. It was a rot-stopping win that lifted Boro out of the drop zone and sent the crowd home with a spring in their step.
But the boss deserves his share of the applause too.
The makeshift back four – Justin Hoyte was making his first start in defence under Mowbray and Seb Hines his first senior start for 14 months – were superb as they effectively shackled the Championship’s joint highest scorers and jet heeled dangerman Craig Bellamy to claim only a second clean sheet at the Riverside all term. The only previous blank at home came in the 1-0 win over Sheffield United in August.
An industrious midfield denied Cardiff space and stopped their speedy wingers exploiting the flanks and they flew into tackles and scrapped for every ball to ensure they won the engine room battle. A long clunky unit looked more balanced than for months.
And the frontmen may not have carved out too many clear cut chances – Julio Arca’s penalty and a Nicky Bailey sizzler were the only times Cardiff keeper David Marshall was really tested – but they dropped deep to help flood the midfield when the visitors had the ball then broke quickly to offer an outlet on the break.
But while the team will rightly be praised for a functional but spirited display that had a relieved Riverside buzzing, the victory was as much about the planning as the delivery.
Mowbray set out deliberately to frustrate Cardiff and neutralise their pace and firepower with a system that stifled the basis of their attacking prowess.
The gaffer is a football thinker. He assesses the opposition’s strengths and weaknesses and is flexible enough to come up with a system toÃÂ counter it. He has shown himself willing to change from game to game and within matches. He has shown he is willing to rip up the rule book and will change a winning team or even stick with a losing one if he thinks the shape and options it offers are the right ones to face the next opposition.
That doesn’t always come off. Trying to second guess the opposition and gearing to their shape can sometimes put your own team on the backfoot and ask them to adopt systems and styles they are no comfortable with but this time Mogga got it spot on: he got the shape right and had the personnel with the strength sto make it work.
That is a radically different approach from the cautious ideological rigidity of Gordon Strachan that would not bend. Strachan tried to jam ill-suited players into unfamiliar roles – Barry Robson at left back! – despite the mounting evidence that it wasn’t working.
Against Cardiff Mogga shuffled his pack again – partly because of the enforced absence of David Wheater and partly because of the on-going virus ripping through the training ground – and came up with a winning hand.
Despite the selection problems he put round pegs in round holes – full-backs on their right foot, a straight swap in central defence, Gary O’Neil on the right, Julio Arca on the left, two solid and disciplined men in the engine room, Marvin Emnes up front – and he came up with an astute and effective strategy that worked.
And in a refreshing post match interview – again in contrast to his guarded predecessor who regarded tactical terminology as a mystical secret world to be guarded jealously from the unwashed with an inpregnable wall of witticism – he was all too ready to explain what he had asked the team to do.
“I’m very proud of the team” he said. “They stuck to the game plan. We haven’t had the chance to do any work on grass for two weeks so the game plan was set up entirely on paper and smart boards.
“Cardiff are a quality team with quite a bit of pace and a lot of options up front. We knew that. They had the extra man in midfield and they spread it wide quickly but we handled it and played on the counter-attack.
“If you press too far up the park they will pick you off with Bellamy and his pace. It wasn’t a day for trying to press them. The crowd here like to see Boro going at teams and smashing into tackles but it was never a day for that. We let their defence have the ball and our forwards had to drop deep into midfield to help out there.”
But it wasn’t just about the shape. The personnel were right too. There was a better balance to the team in every department.
With Wheater suspended the gaffer had initially caused ripples of fear when he hinted earlier in the week he would play Hoyte there to combat Bellamy’s pace. He resisted that temptation – Hoyte has played as a centre back in the Champions League for Arsenal – and instead threw in Hines.
The youngster was awesome. His only previous action this term was a brief cameo from the bench against Chesterfield in the League Cup and since then he has been dogged by injuries and played very little fooball but he looked immaculate at the back as he read the game like a veteran, timed his tackles superbly and was mobile and powerful and equally comfortable attacking the ball in the air or playing it out on the ground.
And he looked a good complementary fit with Matthew Bates and with Wheater a possible departure in January, Hines made a strong case that he is ready to step in.
But Hoyte was excellent too. He has been a bit part player under Mowbray but selected ahead of Tony McMahon because of his pace he more than coped with Bellamy in a solid show at the back and looked incisive bombing forward too.
That was more than balanced by Joe Bennett on the left. He was frozen out by Strachan and his development was set back by a year but he looks hungry and inventive as he surges forward to offer width and some telling crosses.
And even though it was yet another new permutation, the midfield unit also had a better balance to it too. Often O’Neil loses shape in the middle as he chases the game and fails to impose himself but he looked dangerous and energetic and far more disciplined on the right and in the second half he had a stormer.
And Arca – among Boro’s best performers this term despite an on-going injury – was comfortable and creative on the left and linked up well with the central midfield pair and offered support for Bennett’s marauding runs. It was a clinical, calm penalty too. Other spot-kick candidates, take note.
Those two were the outstanding players on the pitch but alongside them sitting deeper them the central pair of Nicky Bailey and Kevin Thomson were rock solid in the middle as they battled against Cardiff’s extra man.
Much maligned Bailey came in for a lot of stick in his early outings but has been an energetic and enterprising figure in his last few games. He arrived labelled as an attacking goal-scoring midfield who was going to bomb on but there has been little evidence of that so far. However, in an anchor role at Coventry he was outstanding and again against Cardiff he flourished further back.
And Thomson deserves special praise. Having come back from a broken leg – possibly too early after taking a few rattles on it and limping off time and again in the games that followed – he managed his first full 90 minutes for Boro and grew in stature as the game went on. After coming gingerly through his first few tackles he became stronger and in the second half was crashing into tackles – including a bone juddering 50/50 with Bellamy – and played some excellent through balls.
The pair together offer the possibility of a solid deeper pairing in a 4-2-3-1 and with O’Neil, Arca, Emnes, McDonald and possibly Luke Williams and further down the line Jonathan Franks there are plenty of possibilities to play in the three – although that could rest on the manager finding a fitting frontman who can play the role effectively.
Up front Scott McDonald was probably the only player who fell short of what was required on the day – dropped deep to help in the middle but struggled going forward and lost possession too often to invite pressure in the second half.
Marvin Emnes in contrast started in a striking role for the first time and looked a livelier and more threatening prospect than the lightweight and demoralised figure of last season. His pace and willingness to run at players terrified the Cardiff defence – he had ripped them apart when playing for Swansea – and he carved out a few chances and won the penalty but he still needs to add end productÃÂ
So, a few more pieces of the Mowbray jigsaw fell into place: a clean sheet, a win to edge out of the drop spots, players finding their feet in natural positions, the offer of new options and the team responding to his tactical tweaking.
We shouldn’t get carried away after a single narrow win, especially when the goal came from the spot, but a shape and spirit is emerging slowly from the post-Strachan debris that can be the platform for a sustained improvement.
WHEN was the last time Boro played a game without making substitutions? Maybe in the days of one sub. I can’t remember it. Managers always like to tweak it as the game unfolds – it is a tactical OCD – and there were plenty of candidates in the frantic final 20 minutes. Man flu victim Emnes faded badly for instance. But Mowbray resisted the temptation to change. Can anyone remember the starting XI finishing a game of late?
WHERE does the game leave Barry Robson? Sat on the bench? The midfield unit looked well balanced, efficient and disciplined and you wouldn’t want to tinker with it. Robson arrived with a reputation for versatility and an ability to play anyway across midfield and at th eback end of last term he was our best player by far.
But which of those players against Cardiff is he better than in the roles they played? He is too slow to realistically play in one of the wider roles and too undisciplined to hold the shape in a deeper role. Like O’Neil he can make cavalier runs out of shape but he doesn’t have the pace to get back if he loses the ball and so leaves a big hole behind him. Boro look better balanced without him.
DITTO Kris Boyd. If Emnes plays his way into contention it effectively leaves Boyd – the top piad player – as at best third choice striker. He doesn’t have the pace of Lita, he doesn’t have the work-rate and instinct to drop deep of McDonald and unless Boro are pounding teams (which doesn’t look likely) the fox in the box role doesn’t exist.
IN WHICH mathematical system were there less in the ground for Cardiff (14,250) than there were for Hull (15,250)? We know how the figure is arrived at … season ticket base plus visitors … but it increasingly bears no relation to reality and is starting to just look a bit daft. It is time to bite the bullet and announce a crowd figure based in reality.
DAVID JONES… sour gapes? He’s under a bit of pressure but his press conference was tetchy, defensive and seeped bad grace. He started by saying he didn’t want a blame culture to emerge at Cardiff then systematically put the boot into his defence and told them they had to accept criticism for the current run (not my fault, guv) and then complained that they had dominated the game but been undone by “a long punt forward.” That’s a bit harsh on a neat ball in by Bennett for the penalty.