IT WOULD be easy to look at the superficial sketchy outlines of the Blackpool game and think: Same old Boro.
Lots of possession and probing with no end product, predictable passing but no punch, caught cold at a scrappy set-play… the only thing that wasn’t “typical Boro” was that it was the opposition left reeling by the penalty box barrage and a leveller at the death.
The stoppage time salvage job didn’t just rescue a point.
It rescued hope that a new Boro are starting to emerge.
For many twitchy Teessiders that last gasp strike – ironically from one of the players most often barracked of late – was deeply frustrating as they had been preparing to boo on the whistle… or press the publish button on a scathing message board broadside.
Without that goal the mood would have been toxic. Three home defeats on the spin would have wiped out the feelgood factor from Charlton, reignited the dissent still smouldering from last term and intensified the pressure on the boss.
The damning charge would have been that nothing has changed at all from last season’s sickening slide, that Tony Mowbray had signally failed to reshape a failing team.
Instead Boro fans went away buzzing and laughing with the special glee that a plundered result brings.
But there should also be a quiet smile too at some of the less obvious markers of steady if unspectacular progress.
Because this is NOT a side that is showing the same institutional fatal flaws of last term’s second-half slump. In fact, it is a team that has quite consciously taken steps to put right the most obvious wrongs.
A lot of the most frequent accusations thrown at the manager and the team have been addressed. Or are at least in the process of being addressed. At least Boro have added physicality, experience, width, pace and creativity while the manager has stopped tinkering and started to make substitutions that change the shape of the game.
They still lack a killer touch, we all know that, but after years of belt-tightening Boro seem be actively trying to splash out on a player that can add bite.
But a lot of the other progressive pieces are already starting fall into place after a fruitful summer shake-up.
Last season Boro were lightweight, especially in midfield, and were often muscled out of games by more physical sides. Now they look a different prospect. With Dean Whitehead, Grant Leadbitter and Jozsef Varga, Boro have an industry and a robust presence that more than matches the Championship norm.
The trio imposed themselves at Charlton and did the same against a Blackpool midfield packed with defensively-minded battlers who were by their own admission out to frustrate and contain.
Six months ago a more brittle Boro would have laboured and been ground down and finished on the defensive and in disarray but this Boro grabbed control of the game early on and set the tempo and shape and never let up.
That is partly due to the added athleticism in the engine-room: Both Whitehead and Varga are comfortable chasing and closing and snapping into tackles – but they can both pick out an expansive pass.
At Charlton it was Varga bursting forward and pinging balls down the channels that added a spark. Against Blackpool it was Whitehead that stood out, dropping deep to shield the defence but also carrying the ball forward to spray the ball around precisely and productively.
He was tight at the back – it was he who was well placed to block on the line and scramble away Teessider Neal Bishop’s hooked effort, Blackpool’s only first half threat.
And in one of the best moments of the match he won a tackle deep in the Boro half, carrying it forward into space and then picked out Mustapha Carayol way out on the left touchline with a sublime 40-yard diagonal pass that was inch perfect. Nicky who?
Carayol responded to that ball as he controlled, flicked it over his marker then nodded on and raced towards the box, weaving past defenders before sending an angled shot at the keeper. It was a familiar theme: Boro are now using genuine pace and width.
In the first half Carayol terrified Blackpool down the left as he hit the afterburners, tricked inside and made scything runs, and although that did not paid dividends in terms of goals it was a refreshing sight and hints at a potent potential once refined.
In the second half it was Albert Adomah – on his home debut – who took up the baton, setting the pace with some incisive runs down the right, beating his man, streaking to the byline and crossing. Crossing!
After a slow start he started to deliver increasingly dangerous balls into the box for team mates to attack. He put in more teasing crosses after the break that Boro did in the second half of last season. It has been so long since Boro had a specialist right winger we had almost forgotten how effective a threat one could pose.
Having two outlets down the flanks has added another dimension to Boro. Last term it was easy to double up on Carayol and stop Boro playing, It is far harder to shackle two flankers. And once the team learn to use them in concert and switch rather than focus on one at a time it will give Boro serious forward thrust.
Yes, Boro still need a clinical finisher to work with and off Lukas Jutkiewicz, to get to the knockdowns and quickly support when he is holding it up in and around the box… but the supply line is now there for the right man to make merry.
At the other end Boro seem to have tightened up too. At Charlton Jason Steele had one real save to make in anger. Against Blackpool – wearing a strip with a sash that made them look like a hen party – Jayson Leutwiler was barely tested. The only goal was from a scramble after a deadball. In open play they look solid.
That is partly down to the more robust and effective midfield but it is also undoubtedly partly down to the more settled and solid looking backline.
Last term the defence was a mix and match mess with personnel and position changes by the week. But against Blackpool injury-dogged duo Jonathan Woodgate and Rhys Williams played the full 90 minutes for the third consecutive match and showed distinctive signs of developing a real relationship.
They were calm and composed throughout – bar a clattering tackle from the Aussie that conceded the crucial free-kick right on the edge of the box – with Woodgate in particular showing incredible awareness to snuff out attacks and head away balls casually. He is starting to look like the player we all hope he can be, and consistently.
Of course, that may just be down to luck. But it may also be down to both having a full pre-season and the new faces in the backroom staff, dedicated conditioning coaches who are getting marginal improvements in fitness levels that can make all the difference.
Added to the commanding and cultured central pair it should be noted that George Friend looks to be edging back towards his best, making some powerful forward runs without sacrificing defensive solidity.
And Frazer Richardson, also making his home debut, has added strength at the back. He may not have the pace overlapping that Justin Hoyte offers but with Adomah on that flank a marauding full-back is less important now while the new boy’s physicality is a major plus when Boro are defending their own box.He can deliver a cross too.
Last season one of the chief criticisms of Mowbray was his tinkering. Now, with some leeway in the budget, he has recruited quality rather than quantity, bringing in ‘core’ first teamers rather than squad players and a fixed first team is taking shape.
The injured keeper aside, Boro started with the same starting team as at Charlton. And the signs are that Boro are now playing with an established team and shape. That can only bode well for the future.
Another stinging criticism last year was the manager’s failure to use substitutions to change the game. Changes were either like-for-like tactically and failed to transform the dynamics or the players put on did not have the quality to make an impression.
But against Blackpool for the first time in a long time the boss made a switch that counted. With an hour gone the introduction of Marvin Emnes for the fast fading Varga completely changed the game.
Emnes added zip behind Jutkiewicz and tricky runs that linked up well with the supply from both flanks. Boro looked a more fluid unit with the interchange of passes quicker and pushed from the half-way line towards the edge of the box. That change in the dynamics of the game – and the crosses being fired in by Adomah – were forcing mistakes from a Blackpool backline that had otherwise looked solid.
And the pressure told as Emnes scored with a well taken strike as Boro turned the screw. It was a well taken strike from the engimatic Dutchman who pointedly marked it with only a muted celebration, his body language totally out of synch with the emotions that such a late salvage job had sparked around the ground.
It was well deserved point for Boro. They never gave up. They showed spirit. They showed belief. They made the tactical change that counted to raise the tempo and pile on the pressure and made it count. So often we have been on the wrong end of that.
Yes, it just a single point when in truth Boro probably should or could have had three had the overall possession been rammed home, if the elusive missing marksmen was part of the mix.
But the positives outweighed the disappointment. Just below the surface something is happening. Bits are gradually falling into place. The shape is being tuned-in. A distinct pattern is starting to emerge.
Slowly, surely, Boro are making progress.