No Case For The Defence As Boro’s Battered Backline Buckles

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.


27 thoughts on “No Case For The Defence As Boro’s Battered Backline Buckles

  1. A few people have used the Stat that Boro conceded three goals without Bournemouth having a shot on target in open play as proof that we can’t defend – but doesn’t that just mean that the Boro defence on the whole did their job and prevented Bournemouth from threatening our goal?
    OK it was still three individual errors or bad luck that resulted in the goals – Rhys seemed to be a bit rash with the penalty and the red card but I would say Richardson and Woodgate were unlucky.
    So Mogga is now on the search for loan defenders but unless we can get that solid strong leader at CB then it may be better to give Gibson his chance – otherwise how he going to get the chance to progress by being on the bench for the whole season.
    Whilst Boro still may hope a playoff spot can be achieved this year, it may in general be better for the long term to give the likes of Gibson and Smallwood more pitch time to make them genuine first team options. Other stats are saying that this is the worst start by Boro for 30 years but we have probably performed far worse and nicked more points in other seasons. Anyway, if this current trend continues then I’ll look forward to the 4-4 at QPR.
    **AV writes: I think Woody WAS unlucky to turn the own goal in … but the problem was the flurry of balls coming in from that flank as Friend was turned inside out in a 10 minute spell when he looked like he’d stepped out of the crowd. And that was the third game running he had an headless spell where he was roasted and looked alarmingly like he’d lost his bearings.
    Williams tackle was rash… but again it wasn’t the first one. He has made a string of them in the last few weeks. He gave away a penalty at Forest (and should have been shown a red there) and could have given away another. He has been caught for pace, caught out of position and dragged all over (partly having to cover for Friend when he has gone walkabout.) It has been a very bad run of games for the defence. It is creaking alarmingly just as the frontline seems to be gelling.

  2. Werdermouth –
    We have discussed before that Friend is a centre come left back and Richardson is the same on the other flank. That shouldn’t absolve the rest of the team. When players get a clear run at the back four you are always in danger of a tackle going amiss.
    I recall a match with Bates in central midfield and McManus getting some testing moments. McManus went off injured and Bates dropped in to centre back and had a stormer. The conclusion was that Bates was the better centre back. Wrong, a proper central midfielder replaced Bates and gave protection. Bates never played with himself in front of him!!
    Rhys does have a tendency to go to ground when he tackles. It is a dangerous trait outside the box, very risky inside it. The other problem is when you play 433. If midfield is outnumbered you need the two wide men working back and doing it properly. If the opposition are careful with the ball their players are always goal side of your wide men. They can run at the back four, slide balls in to the channels. Create chaos. They can press the midfield three in to mistakes.
    Richardson and Friend are in stick or twist territory. So are the centre backs.

  3. Maybe the coaches/Mogga just need to tell Friend to temper his attacking instincts a little, or is this a bigger problem where by Friend’s defensive capabilities aren’t up to scratch? I hope not.
    Of course, its true that two of last Saturday’s goals conceded had nothing to do with Friend. We need to be careful I guess not to select a new scapegoat.

  4. As you say, AV, Williams’s suspension could be a blessing in disguise. However the problem is wider than that.
    I’ve said all season that the pairing of him and Woody doesn’t work. They’re both decent CBs that are good at covering a commanding CH – picking up the bits & pieces that get through. In that scenario their lack of pace isn’t exposed as much. Neither naturally attacks the ball in the way a CH does – that’s one reason why we concede so many from set pieces and crosses. We need a Stuart Boam to their Willie Maddren.
    I said pre-season that, for all his faults, there was a good reason why Mogga signed Bikey last year – we needed height and physique and somebody daft enough to throw himself in where it hurts. Bikey was the stuff of nervous breakdowns but we haven’t replaced him. Dicky Rooks where are you? Mel Nurse, Ugo, Big Nige: have you still got yer boots?
    A failing that has emerged in the last month is the susceptibility of the FBs.
    Friend’s defensive weakness is a surprise. In fact, he’s the opposite of what I expected. As a CB who can play LB, I anticipated a sound defender who would lack the mobility or inclination to get up the wing and would trundle, Gordon Jones-like, only as far the the half-way line. Instead he’s often the player furthest forward and is too easily left for dead. He had twisted blood after the Bournemouth game.
    What has to be recognised is the lack of cover. If we want to see George popping up in their area somebody has to be ready to quickly fill in the gap. We are paying the price for the kind of wide players we now have. There aren’t many teams that nowadays use an out-and-out winger – and we have two of them.
    Is this a luxury we can’t afford? Thinking back to previous wide midfielders, the likes of Geremi and Ziege had both played FB and their instinct was to drop back when needed. Neither Carayol nor Adomah have that mindset and may well be a liability near our box anyway.
    It’s obvious that managers are sussing out this failing and looking to hit us quickly (although it doesn’t need to be all that quick) on the break down the flanks. Friend or, to a lesser extend, Richardson can be left stranded up the pitch, our CBs lack the pace to recover and nobody else steps into the breach.
    If Boro are going to persevere with genuine wingers, then one or more of the other midfielders needs to be assigned to cover the flanks. In that regard we’re fortunate: we have a whole MF of dogs-of-war combative ball-winning players. While one holds the fort in screening the leaky central defence, the other needs to be ready to instantly go wide and drop into any gap left by an overlapping FB.
    But none of this is rocket science. This is Sunday soccer basics – but then that’s on a par with Mogga’s announcement that ‘we must tighten up’ (no – really? So that’s what you get from those coaching badges!).
    What the hell is our defensive coach playing at? I had some sympathy last season when we had a zillion different combinations of back four. This season we have been spookily able to field much the same defence – so where has been the drilling of these basics to forge them into an effective unit?
    My understanding is that Proctor is responsible for the defensive coaching. Given the background of Mogga and Venus, I’m amazed at this fundamental lapse.

  5. AV –
    Here, here! Your piece is right on the money. And many of us have been making this case for months now.
    Your review also nails why Ayala isn’t what’s required either. He may have the physical stature but at two years older than Ben Gibson he has only the same number of league appearances as the Academy graduate and fewer International honours.
    He’s no-one’s idea of “the battle scarred pointy shouty ‘Nigel Pearson style’ centre-back (centre-half) that Boro are crying out for.” If he’s the option, then lets give Gibbo Jnr the chance.
    Nikeboro is also right on the mark about the coaching shortcomings too. If expertise in the sports science and medical departments can be sought, how about someone who can actually coach defending – recognising and working with the cloth that Mogga has sourced for them to work with in a way the current incumbents clearly can’t.

  6. There is always the possibility that 433 works better away from home. With two flying wide man at the Riverside there may be too much space especially if full backs go forward as well.
    No matter how shouty and pointy a centre back may be they don’t like balls played into the channels between them and the full-backs, even worse if they have players running at them.
    Possibly a better option would be 442 and fill the pitch. The two in the middle of midfield could sit properly as the wide men supply the bullets.
    It would also get more people in to the box and keep the opposition honest.
    Away from home you sit deeper and rely on breaks.
    Like everyone I am clutching at straws.
    I certainly don’t want to see Hoyte at left back. Right back ok.

  7. My thoughts this season is that Friend looks better as an attacking wide man than a LB. He has speed and skill and can get past defenders and into the 18 yard box under his own steam better than anyone since Adam Johnson. I would be tempted to recruit a time served LB and then play Friend in front of him where he can track back but his main responsibility would not be defending.
    Carayol can play alongside Kamara up front or on the other flank as an alternative to Adomah. That gives us pace and a threat on the flanks in abundance and square pegs in square holes. Telling Friend to curb his attacking flair I feel is negative, I think we should accept it and embrace it.
    I am also of the view lets give Gibson his chance. He looks to have the potential and can learn from being alongside Woodgate (although I’m not convinced that Woody is the answer to the question any more than Rhys is).
    Last Season with Seb Hines at the back my memory seems to tell me that we picked up more points when he was playing pre Christmas than the games he missed, could be wrong but not anorakic enough to check game by game. My point is that if Seb and Gibson took to the field on Saturday at Loftus Road instead of the regular pairing I would have just as much confidence and perhaps even a tad of optimism.
    With Juke, Kamara, Emnes, Carayol, Adomah and Main along with Luke Williams I would leave the striking concerns on hold in favour of a solid battle scared CB and a similar LB. Most important attributes though would be the ability to yell, shout, scream but most importantly organise.
    When Downing was playing at the Riverside he was constantly castigated for not putting his foot in when tracking back and supporting his defence. The same is true from what I have seen of our current wide men, when tracking back they don’t shield our defence and push the attackers wide and block out deliveries into the middle. This is just one of the reasons we are susceptible plus of course George does look suspect positionally.
    Despite McDonalds knockers last season he did at least think nothing of getting back and getting stuck in and that I feel is another reason for us being exposed at the back this term.
    Central defensively we have Salt and Salt instead of Salt and Pepper with the CB pairing. Whilst Bikey was sometimes wayward he would always attack the ball instead of trying to subtly nick it, McManus likewise wasn’t sophisticated, more of a no nonsense old fashioned stopper. Neither was perfect but they were at least a contrast in style.
    Ayala looks to be more of the same so our interest in him concerns me but in fairness to Mogga, Butterfield and Kamara look to be more than useful additions so if it is Ayala then so be it. Prior to that give Gibson his opportunity, it could be the making of the lad and save the club a fortune. Playing Hoyte at RB and moving Richardson in would probably cause least disruption but we do need to address the Friendly fire on the opposite side in the short term.
    The Midfield needs to sort themselves out also as too many times they have been easily dispossessed, taking an eternity on the ball is costing us points.
    Taking an eternity of course is not solely Whitehead and Leadbitter’s fault, I have said for a long time on here our movement off the ball whilst in possession is tantamount to non existent. Nobody makes runs, dragging defenders, opening space up. Nobody moves to a positive receiving position hence the delays and slow short sideways passing, that also needs addressing. So plenty of issues that need improving but overall I am still of the opinion that this squad is close to being a really good team but it just needs a few tweaks.
    Off the pitch perhaps Mogga needs to look at his coaching staff, like the famous Crockcliffe issues that seems to have been addressed positively perhaps more can be done behind the scenes to improve what we see on the pitch.

  8. TM has decided on his best back four , and so far he has been able to field them on a regular basis. That they have been abysmal doesn’t say much for his opinion of the alternatives. Change is about to be forced upon him, so they will be getting a game by default.
    I keep coming back to it, but player recruitment and selection leaves a lot to be desired. Such a pity that we were bundled out of the Capital Cup, it would have been a perfect chance to experiment with alternatives, we certainly can’t afford to experiment in The Championship.

  9. I’m going to make a concerted effort to be positive. A few days of reflection and a couple of Jarkko pills and I’m getting there.
    I don’t think you can be seriously downhearted after such an enthralling game , although it does help if you take an 8 year old. He was weeping buckets, totally distraught after their second penalty only to to be dancing up and down the steps an hour later when Leadbitter scored. Their equaliser deflated him a bit but he loved the drama of the day and I’m sure he’ll remember it fondly in years to come. I’m glad I didn’t take him to Forest as I think he may have exploded.
    There was loads to like. Plenty of goals, a gutsy comeback, some decent passing moves ( from both sides), a couple of pantomime villains( the ref and their keeper), six goals and two promising home debuts.
    Butterfield in particular could be a real asset for us. He was always looking to move the ball forward and his range of passing, with both feet, was excellent. The kind of technician that should thrive in a Mowbray team. The long overdue policy of buying players proven at this level is bearing fruit.
    Kamara is less technically gifted but full of energy and brave as a lion. He’s just the kind of player that Boro fans take to their hearts. A real cult hero in the making.
    The atmosphere at the ground was decent but it’s difficult to generate a huge amount of noise with so few people there.
    I noted AV that in your excellent bit on the Forest game you stressed how central the crowd was to the drama and what an impact that had in fuelling Forest’s comeback. A passionate, nearly full stadium was also a vital component in the recent promotions of Cardiff and Southampton and probably others.
    It would be great to get a similar atmosphere back at the Riverside, something akin to the Sheff Wed game last season. A starting point would be a few good wins and perhaps a generous offer for walk up fans. A bit of glass half full optimism from those of us who do turn up wouldn’t go amiss either. The quality of the attacking football is undeniably the best we’ve seen for a number of years.
    On the subject of this bit and defending I have been as critical as anyone but unlike many I see Mowbray’s post match interview as a positive.
    The penny appears to have dropped regarding replacing defenders who continually fail to deliver; Rhys Williams being the main culprit. Last season he returned to the starting line up in the win over Blackpool just after Christmas. In the 22 games that followed we conceded 39 goals, an average of 1.77 per game. This season the trend has continued with 14 leaked in eight , an average of 1.75. We are heading for over 80 conceded at that rate.
    Mowbray’s recognition that replacing our defensive flops is the key to progress up the table could be the biggest cause for optimism of all.
    **AV writes: Yes. The club worked hard in the week leading up the deadline to get a quality defender in and failed. Being able to turn out a stable back four and some solid results maybe persuaded them to wait and see how it panned before having another go at bringing someone in. This has sharpened their minds.

  10. Classic, Niceboro. I loved this to bits: “We need a Stuart Boam to their Willie Maddren.”
    Really, Woody is our Willie now. Classy as ever but not able to train during the week. We only need a curly hair and he is like Willie. RIP Willie.
    More worringly, where is our next Boam then? That is the question. Have anyone checked the players currently at Mansfield? Up the Boro!

  11. Just watched the shamblelights again and I must admit about the major benefit from a shouty pointy centre half would be a huge increase in the sales of throat lozenges.
    The defensive problems are all over the pitch. You would take it as a bad day at the office but it keeps happening. It isn’t just Friend’s adventurous play or Rhys going to ground. It looks to be collective.
    I don’t buy the ‘new players bedding in theory’ because that applies to all the teams. There appears to be little cohesion and that will take time.

  12. Ian Gill is right, defensive responsibilities lie within all 11 players on the pitch, when Friend attacks as Mogga wants him to then it is the responsibility of one of the midfield players to cover his position.
    I hope Ben Gibson has a blinder on Saturday and Mogga decides to go with what he has. My fear is that Ayala does’nt want to come here otherwise he would have done so already. We don’t want someone here who wants to be elsewhere.

  13. If nikeboro is correct about Mr. Proctor being our defensive coach, then that has got me worried. From what I remember of him, great midfielder going forward, but a little on the slow side. But defending, no great shakes.
    I also believe we have to sacrifice one of Adomah or Carayol.

  14. I do buy in to the 11 players with defensive responsibilities. What I saw on Saturday was that both Carayol and Adomah showed poor defensive qualities, which is what you could expect from attacking wingers. Adomah was slightly better than Carayol and I feel was moved across to the left because of this. Still, they should be disciplined and track their man and know at least where to put their body.
    When they aren’t there though, isn’t it the three man midfield that is meant to be providing the protection? On Saturday I saw Whitehead and Butterfield close players down, but I saw Leadbitter get to around five feet from any player and then just jog slowly while watching what that player did. That’s not defending. There was no attempt to win back a single ball.
    Nobody should be jogging around the pitch casually waiting for another player to defend and I’ve seen far too much of it of late. I want to see grit and determination to win that ball back and make it as uncomfortably as possible for the opposition when they are in possession. Yes there is such a thing as not diving in, but casually watching while the opposition goes about their business is criminal. I see it most weeks, including last season and it is usually the same players.
    Anybody else notice this?

  15. Nikeboro –
    Actually I don’t need any pills now 🙂 I have had two teams close to my heart during the past + 50 years. First love was Boro (since 1970s) and another locally since 1990’s.
    Both teams went bankrupt. Boro survived in 1986 but the other one never recovered. The latter was bought by a Chinese business man and let some Belgian criminals run the team. He made some fortune in betting but the Finnish FA finally dropped the team down 4 divisions. It went bankrupt and disappeared.
    So I am just happy to have Boro live with a dedicated chairman from Teesside in place. Don’t dream about a foreign owner with a lot of money. The chances are higher that it all ends in tears like Portsmouth than smiles like Man City.
    So I am just happy as it is. With highly respected Academy, local manager (I have met Mogga a couple of times – advances to support the team from here), great fans, (half) full stadium and a well run club. I cannot ask more. It is what it is, but at least it exists. Erimus.
    Up the Boro.

  16. Thanks for providing a springboard for our thoughts…
    Anyway …. what about a complete rethink and play Friend and Richardson as centre backs and rebuild the defence around them. Hoyte can still do a job and therefore source a genuine left back?
    Is Gibson worth a game on merit, or is it just nepotism shining through with Uncle Steve and all that ? Maybe Saturday will tell us. I only ask as Luke Williams, Richie, Andy and Curtis don’t seem to get a look-in, in spite of Luke scoring a brace the other night – one of them a 30-yarder (as reported by the EG).
    Have we got anyone else capable of being on target from distance, which, even if it doesn’t go into the goal there’s chances for forwards to clean up, or, dare I say it deflections which are all possibilities (as we’ve seen to our cost recently).
    **AV writes: Ben Gibson has had two successful seasons behind him (two promotion seasons and a Wembley win) and was arguably the best of the back-line in pre-season. A lot of people can’t understand why he isn’t in the team already… maybe the family link has held him back.

  17. Maybe I missed it but I thought Rhys got a straight red so would be out for three matches.
    Anyway, I hope young Gibson plays on Saturday and has a blinder. It is good for our own players to get a chance in the team. We have seen far too much deadwood brought in and no improvement since the new order was announced post McClaren.

  18. Tomorrow may be an opportune moment for Mogga and his team to turn the corner. A lot of us believe this team is far better than the sum of their points to date and the two recent arrivals have cemented that belief even further.
    Defensively we have frailties. We know for certain that tomorrow there will be a change whether Mogga wanted it or not. We don’t know what the change will be but I’m pretty sure there will have been an in-depth analysis of defending at Rockcliffe all week. For me Gibson is the one I would bring in but who knows with Mogga he may decide to go with three at the back with Richardson, Woody and Friend or just simply slot Gibson into a back four.
    Judging by form and league positions QPR have to be odds on favourites so a little complacency would perhaps be in order in the Loftus Road camp. If Adomah and Carayol both turn up simultaneously along with Kamara leading the line as competently as he has done to date and Butterfield keeps pulling strings then Boro may pull of the surprise result of the day and kick their season off in earnest. This run has to end sometime, tomorrow on paper they have nothing to lose, maybe, just maybe.

  19. Jarkko –
    You’ve summed it up. Yes we are all happy underneath especially when we have something to moan about. And with the Boro there’s plenty of that.

  20. Yes, bad luck? Supporting two teams was not so difficult, though as here we play in the summer (and throw snow balls in the winter). So the seasons overlapped just two months in the Autumn.
    Nowadays a have only my Bonnie Boro to support. My greatest ever match was the game at Hartlepool in 1986 – I drove over 1 000 km to be there in an old red Fiesta (OK, we had some holiday also in North Yorkshire, too). But we survived!
    Up the Boro!

  21. Paulista Park –
    Even if it is a systemic problem a player or two might help make things gel.
    It is not a scientific experiment where you only change one variable and see what happens. When it turns we may never know the main factor that causes it.
    It may be a bit of luck comes our way but as AV’s crime sheet shows we have actually had a fair amount in the last couple of games.

  22. I have never read so much rubbish of recent coments on this noticeboard.
    The club have won only one match and yet there is this pathetic pitiful suppport for muppet Mowbray, He should have been sacked after the defeat by Accrington Stanley or resigned gracefully.
    God knows what the score against QPR will be today,i reckon 3 or 4-1 to QPR and all the time the club are shipping goals,the worse it will get.
    I thought the club were after Becchio,that seems to have died a slow death and now Mowbray states there will be a signing in 72 hrs and other PL clubs are after him. Typical of this club: .All talk to raise fans hopes like the player Bournemouth signed from under the clubs noses for ÂŁ2.5m. This club never changes, all talk and no action.It has to be a question of time now before SG says i have had enough and leaves the club. Can anyone blame him.
    **AV writes: The blog’s very own Ranty Talkio.

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