Last Gasp Sucker Punch: No. 17

DID you hear a loud metallic thud rumbling from the Riverside at 4.40pm on Saturday? That was the sound of the peseta dropping for Aitor Karanka.
The defence – whichever permutation of mismatched miscreants is wearing the shirts – is just not good enough. As a unit they are deeply, fundamentally flawed.
They lack organsation, cohesion, focus, concentration, understanding, nous and leadership. And, no matter what any given week’s short straw media muggins says, they clearly lack the ability to “learn from their mistakes.”
It appears to be a mental weakness ingrained in the DNA of this squad. How else can you explain their repeated vulnerability to the most predictable of set play situations?

Between them, from schools football onwards, in games and training, Boro’s defence must have faced tens of thousands of corners and free-kicks. And yet, as the Countdown clock ticks down and the music speeds up they look like scared set-play virgins.
Even if they have looked solid throughout, come the Twilight Zone it all starts to unravel.
Almost without fail, the red shirt rearguard get barged aside like a spindly schooboy, are easily out-jumped or stand rooted on the wrong side of the on-rushing attacker. I don’t know if they are nervous facing a flag-kick in the “red zone” but I know I am.
And judging by the jitters and tangible terror in the ground, most of the ashen-faced faithful are too. It is so predictable that few people even react to the inevitable sucker punch now. That apathetic acceptance is a worrying expression of the malaise that seems to seep into the pores of the club.
And now Aitor Karanka has realised with a start – THUD! – exactly how big a job he has on his hands.
“I can’t believe it,” he said in the immediate aftermath of the brittle blunder against Brighton. “It is the same thing again. It is not normal to play so many games when you are probably better than your opponents but you do not get the points.”
“Yes, of course I am angry,” he snapped with the first flash of frustration. “We are giving gifts to our opponents in every game. We are finding it difficult to score but other teams are finding it very easy to score against us.
“You can say sorry one or two times but in five games? It’s the same mistakes. It is not possible to continue in this way.”
He didn’t go as far as quoting Lennie Lawrence – “this defensive unit will never play together again” – but you felt he may have done if he had any option.
And you got the sense that he will have been straight off to phone his former boss Jose Mourinho and Boro’s in-house super-agent Jorge Mendes to start calling in a few favours.
When he took over from Tony Mowbray he probably thought it would just be a fine-tuning job. The new boss has spent his first few weeks watching and working, tweaking and tinkering and seeing little signs of improvement and organisation on the pitch only for the good work to be undone at the death.
He has watched all the DVDs and will know exactly what the issue is. The problem is that so have all the other managers in the Championship and they can see the weakness too and they are only too eager to exploit it.
It seems inconceivable that the players themselves can’t see the problem and rectify it.
Yet the evidence – look at the goals against column, and the timings, and the frequency with which they come from set-pieces – suggests they can’t.
At Derby, Boro bravely battled back with 10 men to level and looked solid and set for what would have been a precious point against the Championship’s form side only to spring a leak in the last minute and lose 2-1. From a corner, naturally.
When the first ball in was only half-cleared it was flicked back into the box and was nodded down between Ben Gibson, Rhys Williams and keeper Shay Given.
It happened in slow-motion. Or at least the Boro trio were reacting at that speed and, despite being fourth favourite Rams raider, striker Connor Sammon reacted first to bundle it home.
At Birmingham Boro were deservedly a goal to the good but drew the pearl handed “Typical Boro” revolver and shot themselves squarely in the foot four minutes into added time. They seemed to be cruising to an elusive away win that could have kick-started the season but had to settle for a 2-2 draw. To a corner, naturally.
City sub Kyle Bartley came heading in unchallenged at the near post from a twice taken corner to power in the header. After the game, Daniel Ayala explained sheepishly that no one knew who should be marking the man who had come off the bench. What?
Then against Brighton they had bossed the second half and piled on the pressure before again failing to deal with a routine corner. Matthew Upson showed a real steel and will to win as he just muscled through the a static crowd in the Boro box to connect at the near post and bundle home an untidy header. Yes, it was a dodgy decision and it should have been a goal-kick but you still have to defend it.
And for all the woe is me “woulda, shoulda, coulda” tales of injustice every week, the bottom line is that Boro are the architects of their own misery.
That is five points thrown away at the death in the last three games. Five points that would have put Boro in mid-table, provided the team and supporters with some momentum and belief and given the new boss some breathing space. Five points that would have been a platform for some constructive reshaping and progressive recruitment in January.
Now the boss will have to think of remedial underpinning and fire-fighting instead.
Three points above the drop zone with 20 games gone and points return flat-lining… that screams relegation battle however you look at it.
And at the current leak rate it will be very difficult to find the velocity to escape the gravity of the basement battle. As one wag on Twitter said, he knew exactly how bad the situation was once he started wondering if Titus Bramble was available.
It is that nervous magical time of the year when kids are full of anticipation and counting down the days to Christmas to see what they will get. Boro fans are in a similar situation – but more cynical as they count down the days to the January transfer window opening.
Boro will need a radical restructure then, starting at the back. Not addressing the problem in the summer probably cost Tony Mowbray his job.
If it is not solved in January it will cost Karanka any chance of salvaging the season and building the momentum to take into the next campaign.
And, of course, January is a long way off in football terms. Especially the end of it.
Before then there are plenty of other games to panic about. Between now and the window opening Boro must face shock title chasers Burnley and play-off contenders Reading at home.
And before that an archetypal “typical Boro” moment looms: Millwall. From the day Scott McDonald joined the Lions, battle-scarred Boro fans started donning their defensive armour ready for him to stab us through the heart.
Adding former human shield Nicky Bailey and the presence in the crowd of frustrating full-back Justin Hoyte (he can’t play under the terms of his loan deal) and you have potent fuel for Football’s Inevitability Drive.
Boro have won just once away from home in a calendar year. That is woeful.
Still, the traditional post-Christmas upturn is just around the corner…
If there was ever a chance for Karanka to show he can break an ancient mindset then a win at the New Den would be nice. And a clean sheet.


68 thoughts on “Last Gasp Sucker Punch: No. 17

  1. Len –
    Team that beat Blackpool 4-2 to stay third on the 29th December 2012
    Steele, Hoyte, Williams, Woodgate, Haliday, Leadbitter, Bailey, Smallwood, Emnes, McDonald, Miller. (subs that played, Parnaby, Juke, Reach)

  2. Ha ha, Halliday, Reach, Park. Isn’t it time AK had a good look at them? Rhys,Woody have lost that vital yard and both have long term injury problems and have to be moved on along with the enigma Emnes.
    Another turning into an enigma is Friend great forward bursts but delivery suspect along with his defending. How about using him further forward and get him to concentrate on his final pass/shot,it might work, wholesale changes are needed pretty quick.
    As for Mac’s instant success at Derby, there is the feeling down there that Cloughie got the sack just as the team of super youngsters he had built was about to take off and so it has proved,and McClaren is wrongly getting the credit.
    **AV writes: Sometimes it is more important to be a lucky general rather than a good one…

  3. Interesting to hear about Kenneth Omeruo and Nathan Ake, would Kenneth play at right-back or centre’back; and would Nathan play left-back or as a defensive midfielder?
    I think, regardless of who we actually we end up getting this January, that we need two full-backs, a centre-back, a defensive midfielder and probably a striker.
    Until then, I like the idea, mentioned above about playing with three central defenders and this is how I’d line the team up until we can get new personnel on board.
    ——-Ayala – Woodgate/Other – Gibson
    R.Williams – Butterfield – Leadbitter – Friend
    —-Adomah —– Emnes —– Carayol
    The midfield should possibly be changed to include a defensive midfielder, and maybe Emnes for a target, but I’ve gone for pace, rather than heading ability.
    Roll on January…

  4. Redcar Red –
    Some of those with Cahonas were the very same ones evicted from Celtic and if my memory serves me right their season went the old firm equivalent of tits up.
    You may choose to join the dots if you so wish.
    Good to see that Karanka hopes to hit the ground running in the January window. Experience shows turning good intentions in to solid results is difficult to achieve. Previous managers up and down the leagues have had the same problem. Can only wish him good luck.
    Also pleased to see he isn’t just blaming the defence.
    On to Woodie and the surprising news he has an injury that will mean he has to be managed carefully in a busy period. Just like pre season, August, September, October……
    **AV writes: Woody has played 16 out of 20 games this season.

  5. I was at the Riverside on Saturday and made a deliberate decision not to post until the anger had subsided. Now that I’m a little calmer my view hasn’t changed.
    Both teams were rubbish on Saturday, maybe the high winds didn’t help. But what strikes me is that to focus on the defence as the root of our problems only addresses part of the problem. I saw two decent players in a Boro shirt on Saturday, Adomah and Carayol, the rest were tosh.
    There is no doubt we need defenders (four) quickly, which hopefully will give us a chance of survival in the Championship, but from what I’ve seen this season Butterfield and Whitehead need to be shipped out and we haven’t got a decent centre forward.
    Karanka has a big job on his hands, I’m praying that come May we’re still in the Championship so that he has a chance of building a decent Championship team for next year.
    As for Butterfields ‘too good to go down’ comment, he needs to take a good look in the mirror and ask himself a few questions.

  6. Its strange how quick a newcomer can believe we are too good to go down. This has been going on since Southgate’s days.
    The quicker this squad realises that we are a very average championship side with a real danger of going down the better.
    Yes there have been some changes in style of play. But the same reasons we have gone through three mangers in nearly as many years prevail.

  7. Too good to go down? Oh dear, that’s done it. I know it’s obligatory and we’d slate any player who expressed a lack of confidence in staying up but I’ve heard that too many times. I have the feeling of watching a car crash in slow motion.
    I’m must be feeling my age. Too many seasons, too much disappointment, too many relegations. I’ve lost count of how often I’ve seen Boro go down since my first in ’66 (it’s funny how you remember the promotions like they were yesterday but the relegations are hazy. It feels like I’ve seen us promoted twice as often as I’ve seen us relegated, which puts us in the Champions League, doesn’t it?).
    Wolves were too good to go down last season but down they went. If resources, organisation and confidence are lacking anybody can be relegated, even if the players are adequate.

  8. People can claim that Mowbray didn’t want “men” in his squad but that would presumably mean they consider Leadbitter and Woodgate to be sheep. A dodgy conspiracy theory in my view.
    More likely is that he didn’t fancy those players to be able to play the way he wanted and more importantly were not value for money. He was right.
    The real problem is that the replacements have been largely worse, though far more affordable.
    January is key now. Though it’s early days there hasn’t been any change in results under Karanka thus far, so his recruitment needs to prove he can make a difference.

  9. Nigel Reeves said: “As for Butterfields ‘too good to go down’ comment, he needs to take a good look in the mirror and ask himself a few questions.”
    I agree Nigel. There have been a few “don’t worry it’s all going to be fine” from players lately. It may well be. We can still fairly reasonably make the play off’s if we put a five game run then more together.
    They have the ability to be further up the table. However the table doesn’t lie, unless we revisit the match fixing issue, and they aren’t further up.
    Knuckle down and shut up time for me. Talk on the pitch, concentrate on the pitch and any fluff spoken about too good to go down, should be met with bonus laps after training to focus the other minds in the squad on what they should be focussing right now.
    – 95 mins of concentration
    – no donkey defensive errors
    – no pens
    – everyone on the pitch at full time.

  10. I’d had the same thought as dtro68. We have FBs who can be useful going forward but can’t defend. Push them forward into WB positions and play three CBs. As has been said, Gibson has already shown he can play at LB so he should be even more comfortable on the left of a central three.
    It can’t be any worse than the present set-up.

  11. Andy R –
    Woody is a very experienced and classy centre-back who never reached his potential due to an injury plagued career but a Leader?
    I have never seen him get angry, I have never seen him motivate, I have never seen him organise his back line, I have never seen him yelling at his teammates or cajoling them. He “leads” the team out of the tunnel and thats it.
    Southgate the player was a leader, Nigel Pearson was a leader, John Terry (and I can’t stomach the guy) but I have to accept he is a leader. Woody simply doesn’t lead at all, not even remotely, Rhys before him didn’t either hance the same problematic characteristic.
    Leadbitter is a passionate and busy midfield player but he isn’t a leader either, he gets angry and gets booked but that isn’t leadership thats hot headedness. Out of the current crop of players only Given shows any willingness or ability to organise, point and direct. We haven’t got any leaders e.g. Robson, McMahon or even mouthy McDonald, someone who would open his mouth and shout, inspire, berate, anything just show some drive.
    Anyone who was a strong character was coincidentally or deliberately removed from the club. I suspect this was the true cause for our post Xmas decline last season, things were going on and being said behind closed doors and it all fell apart. What we are now left with are a bunch of in the main decent lads but looking lost.
    Think back to when Mogga first arrived, if we went a goal down at the Riverside, McMahon would start bombing down the wing full of fury desperate to get an equaliser before the final whistle. McMahon isn’t the most adept RB in the country but what he lacked in ability he made up by rousing his teammates to up their game and give another 10%.
    Barry Robson likewise got angry, got fired up like Leadbitter but would then fire shots on target, put pressure on the officials (would Brighton have got that corner if Robson was on the pitch last Saturday and if they did I would guarantee the Ref would have blown for an infringement just in case). Robson would never give in, it isn’t in his psyche.
    One game which sticks in my memory, Leicester away in the snow last season when Emnes took the missed penalty. Everyone watching knew his confidence was shot, he never looked like scoring unless Schmeichel tripped over his bootlaces. A captain/leader would have intervened (Leadbitter himself even) and made sure someone more confident would have taken that spot kick but there wasn’t a leader on the pitch, the rest like the season which unfolded is well documented.
    Recently Roy Keane was castigated by no less than Fergie. Keane was one of the best post war captains Utd have had, his medal haul is testimony to that. Keane would shout, swear, inspire and at times even carry the team on his back when he had to. In the Champions League semi final in 1999 when Utd eventually went on to win the treble it was Keane who was inspirational in their semi-final against Juventus, he was booked and knew he would not play any part in the final if they qualified. Did he go awol or sulk or shrug his shoulders, lie on the ground in abject despair? No he drove his charges on and made sure that he was not going to be a loser……thats what a real leader is made of.
    Fergie obviously found Keane a handful, he was not and still isn’t easy to manage but Fergie knew that once out on the pitch he would stand up and be accountable and responsible. His “unkind” words about him in his recent autobiography indicates this, despite that Fergie knew he needed a leader on the pitch so managed him at the time for the greater good of the club.
    Boro and Mogga couldn’t or didn’t want strong opinionated characters at the club hence we have none. Interestingly when Mogga was removed from his role at Celtic they brought in a firebrand leader in Lennon to rebuild things. Leaders are crucial in any business and good ones are indispensable. No disrespect to them but Woody and Leadbitter do not remotely come close to being members in the leadership club.

  12. An interesting quotation today from Brendan Rogers, explaining why he ditched Carroll in favour of making the quicksilver Suarez the focus of his attacking play: “My thinking was that if Luis is playing with a big guy he is playing off the second ball, and his anticipation skills are very good. I felt that wouldn’t benefit him because when you play with a big target man it is hard not to make that the focal point of your team.”
    So relevant to Boro! We don’t have “anticipation skills” in our team, but we have big target men at right back, left back and somewhere on his own in the forward part of the pitch.
    Presumably, when “training”, we do lots of predictable, second-rate corner drills, with Leadbitter feeding the head of one of our strikers while Adomah, Carayol, Emnes make lots of daisy chains until the drills go onto fancying about in the middle of the park skills.
    Anyone else who isn’t needed for adventurous runs (which would disturb our defenders to be bothered with, when they are busy with the “physical presence” of our three strikers will make tea or tell the press how talented we all are!

  13. AV –
    Dont spoil a post with facts aboout Woody, you will be telling me we have a stroger squad in a weaker league next.
    The point about Woody is that he has to manage his fitness carefully. He has started sixteen of the 20 league games and rightly rested for the game against Accrington who? But he did come off after 45 minutes in two of those.
    We are now told we have to manage him carefully over this busy period. That is not news to any of us, he has had to be managed carefully for many years.
    Reporting it is a bit like telling us we cant defend set pieces and the last five minutes of matches should be banned.

  14. AV
    A good article on too good to go down.
    Southgates team gradually got weaker over his tenure especially mentally. That is the case with the current squad.
    The problem with Soutgates squad was not that we let so many players go insummer 2008 but that we didnt replace them wth substance.
    Mogga was the same with the snarlies. The problem with Robson et al was not that they left but the fact that we didnt want their ilk in the club and didnt replace them.
    No matter what anybody says you cannot airbrush out of history that largely the same group had been in a three time championship winning team at Celtic and were ushered out of Parkhead, Celtic went belly up for a while.
    Look where we are and as I said earlier join up the dots.
    It is not just to do with the actual players, that is just fate as is the fact McDonald will probably score on Friday.
    Anyone who has the misfortune to read my posts will know this isnt hindsight on my part.

  15. Boro Doug and Nigel Reeve:
    The bit I thought was telling about Butterfield’s interview on Radio Tees was when he said two things in quite quick succession: first that we dominated the game for long periods and then that we need to improve in both boxes!
    Now, I’m not a professional footballer, but I thought the penalty boxes were where games were won and lost! I suggest that domination of football matches therefore, can only meaningfully occur in defence of our goal and in attacking theirs. Playing keep-ball is “dominating” a match when you are two or more goals up with five minutes to go, not otherwise.
    We need better mobility and defensive nous in both full back areas and we also need midfield runners flying into the opposition’s box and asking a few questions of their defence, causing a few positional doubts for their central defence.
    As I said on here last season, these skills are different sides of the same coin and should have been practised and practised on the training ground for the last ten months at least. So should the angle of delivery when we resort to punting long hopeful balls upfield.
    Any defender will thank you for delivering these so he can see them coming, while the attackers have to look back to see what’s coming. It distresses Boro fans that our team is still failing to figure out such basic stuff, or, equally likely, is complacently believing that they are too good to work at menial stuff just as they are too good to go down.
    Incidentally, I don’t buy into the three centre back theory for the simple reason that our centre backs (among whom I include Friend, Gibson and Williams) are almost all too slow. If we are thinking about playing with wing-backs, therefore, we still need more speed.
    Only Halliday seems a plausible bet for such a role, in my opinion. We need a Gordon Jones, a Mick McNeil, a Derek Stonehouse, a John Craggs, a Geoff Butler, a Cyril Knowles, a Frank Spraggon or a Terry Cooper and we need one on the 1st January! And bring Hoyte back too!

  16. There’s a good article on the BBC Website about Southampton’s rise from the brink of going under in League One to where they are now. Interestingly there’s also a mention about the fixation with formations (4-5-1, 4-3-3….).
    I would post the link but the Polit Bureaux would snaffle it. The title is “The man behind Southampton’s success”

  17. Redcar Red –
    In his first spell, I recall Woodgate guiding David Wheater rather well. He and Leadbitter may not by Roy Keane’s, but they are players that others look to. They are leaders, though I wouldn’t say stand out ones.
    However, the idea that Tony Mowbray, one of our greatest captains and a man who would know more than most the value of such types, would systematically weaken his own squad is frankly ridiculous.
    Was the fact that none of these players were mobile, technical types a coincidence? Was the fact that all were high earners at a club that needed to raise funds coincidence? I prefer to draw conclusions from those facts than join the dots for a conspiracy.
    Mowbray clearly thought he could achieve more with less. He was wrong and the cheaper replacements he brought in haven’t proved up to it. In time we may have more sympathy with that – we’re all well aware of the no-scouts-no-money mitigations – but now it is too raw.
    Those mitigations won’t cover all the perceived failings of the past year or so but the theory that Mowbray sought a mentally weak squad is a bit silly really.
    Results were extremely poor. That doesn’t make him stupid.
    **AV writes: The club – not just the manager – wanted those three (and a couple of others out) because their wages were a massive millstone and prevented any serious new investment/surgery on the squad. Not because they were feisty or strong or had baggage. It was all about wages. But naturally, all these things are subject to whispers and retro-conspiracy.

  18. Redcar Red:
    “The club was in free-fall on the pitch and the causes that were supposedly identified and dealt with weren’t. It appeared to me that despite some defiant rhetoric that those in the know in the directors inner sanctum hadn’t the vision to see what was on the end of their nose.
    “It was a re-run of the Southgate era when the fans could see what was happening but anyone who pointed out the blindingly obvious was a heretic.”
    Andy R:
    “The real problem is that the replacements have been largely worse, though far more affordable.”
    So, 1+1=1.5
    And throughout all of this, i.e. the “Southgate -Strachan-Mowbray-Karanka” era, what’s been the ever-constant factor that’s NEVER acknowledged or accepted?
    Not necessarily looking for a change in the hierarchy! Just trying to redress injustices in fan opinion about successive managers who each were presented with their own version of a poison chalice.
    A club in free-fall, initiated by the chairman’s need to restructure his corporate financial exposure. THAT precipitated an exodus of quality, introduced instability, and despite a couple of desperate risky throws to reverse the now established trend (Alves,Mido & the Highland Clearance initiative), was exactly that – desperate, risky throws. Gambles that failed.
    But gambles that soiled the reputations of otherwise decent and good managers, while the principal architect, as always seems to be the case, in football as in life, remains unsullied and still on the pedestal.
    Mowbray may, in many disappointed fans’ eyes, have got things wrong. But THIS, he got absolutely spot on –
    “It is what it is!”
    Each of these recent Boro managers were sacrificed by the ever-present hierarchy that has failed to create conditions of sustainable high-quality football and results. It’s a consequence of THAT, that Boro’s slide continues. To lay the blame on successive managers is an injustice and fails to acknowledge and accept the bigger picture.
    I accept that it’s the same figurehead and executive chairman who gave rise to the “Ayresome Phoenix” and contributed hugely to the rise and rise to silverware and Eindhoven. And I also have to accept that it’s changed days for him.
    But what I can’t accept is the inherent blame that attaches to his appointees – his lieutenants – who have each been handed jobs to be held to account against targets that he has set, but in a climate of his creation, have proved to be ultimately too challenging. I believe that in his circumstances, the task set would have been too challenging for ANY manager.
    THAT is MY reality.
    How many more managers will he have to get through before it dawns on fans that there’s a common denominator and that, “It is what it is!”
    Redcar Red and Andy R have at least started to join the dots!
    **AV writes: When results are going poorly there is always a search for a culprit. Where there’s blame there’s a claim. But what has gone wrong at Middlesbrough is not some deep unspoken cultural corrosion. The dynamics at the club are the same as when Boro were riding the waves.
    Steve Gibson used to put in a fortune and demand success but then had the extra Sky Sports money to buy it. He could sanction big name signings and throw money to solve a problem position. Now he is putting in a fortune and demanding success but the club is running a £10m a year deficit and his money supports the wage bill and has no impact on the pitch. That is the harsh reality. It’s economics.
    The problem is not the structure of the club (it is not fundamentally different from probably 95% of clubs in the country). The problem is relegation and the consequent drop in revenue from £60m a year to £16m. No change in perspective, ambition, determination. Just a change in levels of finance.
    And relegation is part of the natural life-cycle of a middling club. It is an ever present risk. Boro were never immune from it. When you are part of the third tier in the Premier League you are always one bad season away from calamity. And that’s what happened. One bad season and suddenly Boro were plunged into chaos as Leeds, Norwich Sheff Wed, Leicester Southampton etc were.
    Unlike those clubs Boro didn’t go into administration and drop another league. Maybe there is an argument they should have. That is an hypothetical. Maybe then people would have got the foreign investor they crave. Mandaric maybe.
    The idea that Boro didn’t try to avoid relegation is nonsense. Gibson spent £13m on Alves in the January. The idea that Boro didn’t try to get promoted is nonsense. Gibson sacked Southgate as soon as it became clear the team was starting to falter, brought in ‘the right sort of manager’ to play a more robust style and then gave him a staggering amount of cash to spend (£10m in this division should guarentee promotion). It wasn’t for the want of trying.
    But football doesn’t come with any guarentees. The club made mistakes in recruitment (Beattie rather than Alves, Warnock rather than Strachan may have made the difference) and paid the price. That’s it.
    There is nothing to be gained in constantly measuring every action, every player, every transfer, every crowd figure against what the club had five years ago. We are not in the Premier League now, We are operating in a different financial landscape and we need to accept that we are also operating in a different psychological one too. We need to make that mental adjustment.
    The real issue that people are struggling to come to terms with is not some spurious deliberate mismanagement for unspoken reasons but the fact that Boro have turned into just another ordinary Championship side before our very eyes.

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