AFTER a sizzling start to the season dominated by sparkling stats, thread-bare Boro are now suddenly playing a darker numbers game.
During a barely believable record-breaking beginning, the spotlight was on the statistical superlatives. It was a best ever run of six away wins on the bounce. At 11 games undefeated, it was the best ever league start since the club stepped up into the Football League in 1899.
There was a record five successive clean sheets in the league – an incredible eight hours and 38 watertight minutes without leaking before the Millwall game. Boro had gone 15 games undefeated, had just one defeat in 23 and had leaked just six goals in 11 games. They are numbers impressive enough to have swaggering Boro boasting like a gangsta rap.
But the stats – and a healthy points haul and lofty position in the table – had helped disguise a more significant arithmetical element that has now loomed ominously into view.
Boro have a very small squad. Or at least, a very small nucleus of key players. The first XI fit and on the pitch are a match for anyone in the division – but beyond that the squad is shallow.
We knew that in the summer. Belt-tightening, wage cutting and squad-trimming were the key features in a summer of austerity and Boro kicked off the campaign with a size zero squad and fingers crossed. And with even just a few of those key players out the balance of the team is critically shifted downwards, the sum of the parts is harshly exposed as not quite adding up.
That is why expectations were generally so conservative before the season kicked off.
Now the numbers look a bit bleaker. Six games without a win. One goal in five. Four points from 15. Scott McDonald has gone seven without a goal. Emnes has gone six. That is all starting to add up to a bit of a problem.
And at Forest (and there’s a lot of numbers involved there too… one win in 37 years…. one clean sheet in 110 years… the biggest hoodoo on Planet Boro) suddenly the latent lack of numbers told.
The defence that has been rock solid over the past six matches looked depleted and very jittery with three of its pillars removed.
Carl Ikeme has been a steadily more influential and dominating figure in the box as the season has progressed but a hand injury has ruled him out of the last two games and forced the return well ahead of schedule of Jason Steele.
The England Under-21 shot-stopper is highly rated and is ear-marked as a long term fixture but he had barely been in full contract training a week and had played just one reserve game before being thrown back into the first team fray and it will take time for him to gain the crucial match sharpness needed.
Matthew Bates has been inspirational at the back. He wasn’t given the Championship Player of the Month gong for September on a whim. His positional sense, perfectly timed blocks and tackles and calming presence at the back has been instrumental in helping Boro resist long spells of pressure unscathed.
And Rhys Williams too has been out-standing at the back. You can argue that his best position is in midfield but his athleticism, his instinctive reading of the game and touch is a massive asset in defence. He has an unflustered ease about the way he scoops up dangerous balls in high pressure situations and recycles them effectively with some superb passing from the back.
Having those three taken out of the defensive equation has been a massive blow for Boro.
In their place against a rejuvenated Forest side out to impress the new boss was a keeper playing only his second game of the season while Seb Hines was back in for his first league start of the campaign after a long spell sidelined. And elder statesman Stephen McManus has only just returned from injury himself.
With a makeshift defence – the three centre-backs hadn’t played as a unit together before – Boro were always going to be right up against.
That is no excuse for what was a shambolic and shapeless display, but it should form a key part of the post-mortem. Boro were poor. There is no escaping that. They were jittery at the back and after some early patient passing moves failed to pick their way through they gradually started to knock long and longer balls for forlorn lone man Emnes to chase fruitlessly.
And with the defence under pressure, wing-backs Justin Hoyte and Joe Bennett were forced back and that left the team with no outlet, pace or penetration down the flanks.
That forced them to play through a congested, misfiring middle where the balance wasn’t right and passes were going astray. Kevin Thomson – himself still short of match sharpness – and Nicky Bailey were playing too similar a role and too deep so Faris Haroun was forced to run around fire-fighting and Barry Robson was the only one getting sporadically forward to support isolated Emnes.
The unplayable Dutch destroyer of the early weeks is now a fading memory. With off colour McDonald dropped to the bench for a breather he was left to shoulder the early burden alone and looked to be sagging under the weight while the second half introduction of ineffectively Alex Nimely and a switch back to 442 did little to solve the problem of a flaccid frontline.
Boro were nervous and disjointed at the back, scrappy, unbalanced and bereft of creativity in the middle, lacked width and pace going forward and were blunt up front.
It was like a tribute gig to mark the memory of Gordon Strachan one year on.
It must be said that Forest were good. The played with a zip, penetration and invention going forward that belied their second bottom spot and they took ruthless advantage of Boro’s awkwardness..
It was a bad day at the office for Boro. A very bad day at the office. But it was remember, the first defeat of the season and Boro remain in third place, probably well ahead of the pre-season expectations of most. It was disappointing and a set-back but it was not the disaster the bleaker phone-in fog-horns were outlining.
Of course, we can’t use the fact that we are ahead of the curve to disguise a poor display or the looming problem. We all knew Boro were going to lose at some point. They are not Barcelona after all. Early results have raised the bar of expectations but the squad remain a low Championship one with all the inherent flaws.
That defeat has been coming in recent week as the goals dried up, the early zest faded and opposition coaches set out their stall to counter the threat of Emnes and the wing-backs.
It is a numbers game and Boro, always a thin squad, are now alarmingly down on numbers for the looming top of the table six-pointers against Derby and Southampton.
Williams, carefully managed by Mogga, has aggravated his pelvic/groin problem playing a demanding full-back role twice in a week for Australia and could now be out for a few while Bates will be touch and go with a foot injury so the defence will be problematic.
And the engine room will face running repairs too. Barry Robson – Boro’s best in recent games – is now suspended after rashly picking up a fifth yellow last night for reacting angrily when a Forest player blocked a quick free-kick.
It could be difficult to reshape around him. Just back from one spell on the sidelines Kevin Thomson tweaked a hamstring late in the game while Merouane Zemmama – himself no stranger to the physio’s table – is also crocked again.
And upfront new boy Bart Ogbeche, who despite his ring rust has bagged three goals in two reserve’s games and may have offered something different, has picked up a head injury in training. Welcome to Boro mate.
Boro’s small squad has big holes in it going into a game where they will be expected to bounce back in front of a Riverside crowd with some increasingly twitchy elements.
Despite it being the first defeat, recent results and the reaction to them in some quarters have provoked a strange air of impending crisis and the next two matches feel like they could shape the season, temper ambitions and set the agenda for months to come.
Mogga could spend the next few days scribbling and crossing out names like Halliday, Kink and Smallwood. We don’t need to see the working out but Mowbray must somehow make the numbers add up again.