EXACTLY how many goals do Boro concede from set-plays? That is one of the FAQs when stopped by supporters for an animated chinwag. The answer is of course: “Most of them.”
So far this season every goal leaked in the league since the opening day defeat to Leicester has come from a dead-ball of some sort.
And the two in the red-faced League Cup exit to Accrington Stanley.
In that game Stanley’s shock against the run of play leveller came as Carver nipped in front of marker Ben Gibson to nod on a long throw.
And then – after Boro had peppered the North Stand with a sustained SWAT assault flurry of shooting – the minnows sealed it as Mingoia stabbed home when a static home defence failed to clear a corner.
Since then Boro have gone unbeaten in a solid if not spectacular start… but they may have been right up at the top of the table but for the vulnerability to set-plays.
Against a blunt and banked up Blackpool, Boro dominated and looked rock solid at the back. But they were stunned late on when a Ferguson free-kick was slammed into the wall and then a second effort deflected kindly for unmarked Basham to sweep home.
Luckily, Boro showed spirit to claw to a deserved leveller late on through Marvin Emnes but the damage had been done and a single point was scant reward for the balance of play.
Next up was the trip to Wigan. There Boro conceded a penalty (the softest of the three quick-fire spot-kick shouts) which may be a special ermine clad free-kick presented on a golden platter but is still a dead-ball and – with more astute defending – is still avoidable.
Then, with the hard work done and the game all but in the bag, Boro conceded a free-kick after a self-inflicted string of errors just outside the box and Gomez slammed in a rocket shot that took a deflection off Andy Halliday and squirted in.
Unfair? Maybe. But both of the costly kicks were given away cheaply in situations that could and should have been controlled. The tug by Friend at Wigan which gave the striker the excuse to tumble in the box was naive at best and rash at worst while the free-kick for the late leveller came when a ball that Williams should have put in Row Z or down a channel was played with a high-risk cushioned short pass towards a man who was being closed down leading to not only a dangerous deadball but two cheap yellows cards. And, then a goal.
Then with Sheffield Wednesday… again Boro were in the ascendency when they leaked the opener just before the break, Johnson given acres of room to nod down a corner for Antonio to react quickest in the middle of a posse of defenders and hook it home.
Spirited Boro levelled and they deserve credit for that. But it still felt like two points lost – and lost from situations that are largely predictable and rigid and which can be rehearsed day in day out.
In general terms the back four will have faced tens of thousands of set-plays in their career. Being good at dealing with those situations got them the gig.
In specific terms they will have watched the videos and break downs in how the opposition tend to use corners and free-kicks: in-swinging, out-swinging, short, far post, near post, spot, which big lads make runs where and which areas they nod the ball down into for lurkers to pounce. Defending dead-balls is a well practised art in football – or should that be a science as it has a hefty academic body of work behind it? – and most teams do several sessions a week.
And still they fly in.
Open play is far more unpredictable but set-plays – penalties aside – should be defended with second nature mechanical precision aided by knowledge of what this opposition are likely to do.
Chances in football are limited and teams must make the most of them. Dead-balls represent a chance within parameters you can control. Static positions, movement of players at specified times, direction and speed of delivery … all can be manipulated in order to catch a defence off guard. Many teams – those who have picked up the John Beck or Wimbledon mantle of simplistic ‘position of maximum opportunity’ approach – have made winning set plays the central plank of their game-plan. The current vogue is to denounce Stoke for that anti-football approach but many bigger and better resourced teams are just as adept with a dead-ball.
But defending teams know that. They organise to prevent it. It is at the heart of their preparation. So for a defence – and a manager who was a great defender in exactly those situations – it must sting to concede so many.
It’s more than a blip. Or a statistical quirk. It is more than a bad habit, ii is an institutional flaw that needs addressing swiftly if Boro are to prosper. They can’t keep going into games with their back door ajar.
At some point, even if a well balanced and dominant Boro have the bite on, teams will get a corner, a free-kick or a throw- in around the box and have the chance to exploit that vulnerability. The evidence shows they have a good chance of doing just that. It is now Boro’s most pressing problem and the single most effective tactical improvement the boss can make.
Of course, this season’s seepage isn’t anything new. It was a corrosive current that undermined last term too. Last season Mogga was moved to say the team were crying out for a defender to “just get a head on fifty times a game” when the ball flew in from corners and free-kicks where his team had proved so vulnerable.
I’ve had a quick flick through season’s match reports and gone through the 70 goals that Boro shipped. It wasn’t pretty reading.
Of Boro’s 70 league goals 20 came from dead-balls. That’s a worryingly high 28.5% leak rate.
Let’s be generous and take out the five penalties. That still leaves 15 of 70 goals – 21.4% – from static situations.
Five came from free-kicks, either slammed straight it, deflected in via the wall or after the opposition reacted quickest in the box to bundle it home.
Eight came from corners, often as part of a series of flag-kicks that stretched the defence out of any discernible disciplined shape and usually accompanied in the match reports by the phrase “rose unchallenged to head home.” Although a few came as sharper strikers have poked home in scrambles at one or other of the posts.
And two came as Boro stood rooted as attacker latched onto quickly taken throws into the box.
Naturally the stats don’t tell the whole story.
Each goal comes with its own chain of causality and blame – although credit must be given to the opposition for stretching the defence and creating and taking chances as well.
And morale must be a factor too. Penalties aside, Boro leaked only once from a dead-ball in the opening 12 games, to a quickly taken free-kick in a 2-1 win over Leicester. At that stage Boro were tight and alert to dead-balls.
The bulk of the costly dead-ball blunders came as the season unravelled.
The rot set in with the Cardiff away game as Boro dominated but lost 1-0 to a header from an in-swinging corner. That sparked a wobble in which they leaked to dead-balls in six of the next seven games, including a late Leeds winner from a poorly defended Becchio header and an own goal as Friend screwed in from a Millwall free-kick.
And there was another poor run of six in the last eight games as the inching slither down the table turned into a headlong plunge. A late corner at Huddersfield turned what had looked a win five minutes earlier into a demoralising 2-1 defeat and in quick succession Boro surrendered to set-pieces in a 3-2 defeat at Wolves and a 1-0 reverse away to Hull.
The final goal of the season was a fittingly inept one, a routine curling flag-kick that bounced through the box that was missed by two Sheffield Wednesday players and two Boro defenders before bouncing in at the far post.
We had hoped that fatal flaw would be addressed urgently over the summer and the solution would be helped by the stability of a fixed back-line.
It seems not. Yet.