TONY MOWBRAY is finding it very hard to make a case for the defence.
Eight goals leaked in three games (and it could have been more) … three spot kicks conceded (and it could have been more) … two red cards (and it could have been more) … three winning positions let slip amid moments of slapstick chaos.
And just two points. And it could – and should – have been more. That it isn’t is entirely down to Boro’s fatal flaw, an almost institutional inability to hold onto a lead.
In three games the defence has been stretched out of shape, burnt by pace, pierced with diagonal aerial balls, turned inside out by tricky wingers, been caught flat-footed at dead-balls, beaten at both posts, invited into rash tackles, failed to cut out crosses, given away penalties and free-kicks and struggled to cope with routine direct Championship fare. That’s a master class in how not to do it.
So far it has been a Black September for the run ragged rear-guard. And it is table-topping QPR next.
Boro have leaked 14 goals in eight games. Only the bottom two – Barnsley and Bolton – and Bournemouth, who leaked five at Huddersfield and six at Watford, have conceded more. It doesn’t make good reading.
It doesn’t make for good watching either. Even through your fingers. It is nerve-wracking, nail-biting stuff inducing outbreaks of sweating, the jitters, wild moods swings , involuntary expletives and mild paranoia.
Up front Boro have done the business: they have created chances and scored goals. Some very good ones. That problem at least has been addressed. But at the back there is some major remedial under-pinning work to be done. And quickly.
It has been a traumatic week with every positive – and there have been plenty – immediately trumped by a self-inflicted negative.
Boro dominated Ipswich in a sizzling opening 20 minutes, engineered a good goal and looked comfortable and nailed on to win.
Then they were sliced open. Repeatedly. Down both flanks and through the middle. On the ground and in the air. It was a defensive meltdown. A ‘bad day at the office.’
At Forest, Boro were two up and let it slip. The goals, superbly crafted, both came on the break. The bulk of the play was at the other end. And while it was scrappy and nervous at time Boro did well for long spells heading away crosses, blocking and tackling – although one tackle by Rhys Williams conceded a penalty and another could quite easily have handed Forest another.
But as the pressure mounted, both full-backs were repeatedly roasted – overdone if truth be told – and high and low crosses were flying in from testing angles and ultimately both goals came from balls that came in from the flanks unchallenged.
Against Bournemouth Boro did well to hit back from two early penalties and first level then take the lead – only to once again wilt as the visitors applied a bit of pressure.
When Boro launched their fightback, the Cherries ‘parked the bus’ and successfully held out for the best part of an hour of sustained pressure before falling behind.
Then the visitors changed shape and tempo and started to attack more and find width and put pressure on the full-backs and Boro’s own bus-parking session lasted just a short-lived seven chaotic minutes before they cracked. As we all feared they would.
Not only did Bournemouth get a leveller but they could have had another penalty – has that ever happened before, three penalties for an away team? – and to rub salt into the wounds, the misfiring former Rolls Rhys turned Trabant was sent off.
That had been coming. Two rash tackles at Forest yielded a yellow card that could easily have been a red and a penalty that wasn’t punished as Jason Steele saved superbly.
Then two more ill-timed tackles against Bournemouth – both because he was out of position – proved more costly.
It could be a blessing in disguise if it forces the bosses’ hand and leads to a direct action to plug the gaps. Williams has been below par this term and does not feel a natural fit with too-similar Jonathan Woodgate. They have similar strengths but similar weaknesses too and the chief of those – a lack of pace – has been brutally exposed of late.
It has not helped that they have been lacking protection, especially on the left. George Friend, lively going forward, has had to put his hand up sheepishly several times of late after being skinned by wingers who have delivered crosses that led to goals.
Friend has the ability and instinct to get forward and at times last season that offered a potent outlet going forward. He was often the only pace and width in the team. Boro have been playing with a more natural widemen to offer that this season – yet the full-back is still over-lapping and is frequently the furthest forward.
That’s not always a bad thing of course: he has scored two cracking goals this term… but at times it does leave him miles out of position when attacks break down. And often the counter-attack goes down the gaping hole down that flank as he tears back trying to chase his man, snapping and over-running or over-committing to a tackle in an attempt to recoup the situation. Crosses are coming in from that side far too easily.
“Something will have to change,” admitted Mowbray after the game, moved to direct criticism of his backline for the first time.
In the short term that change will probably be the blooding of Ben Gibson who won rave reviews at Tranmere last term and looked the best of the backs in pre-season. He’s young but has played a lot of football over the past two years and deserves a chance.
In the medium term it could mean an entry into the loan market for defensive reinforcements – we know the usual suspects – to resolve the pressing problem.
Hopefully it will prompt the arrival of the battle scarred pointy shouty ‘Nigel Pearson style’ centre-back that Boro are crying out for.