IMAGINE: Away. At Blackpool where Boro had been battered on every visit since 1987. In January, when Boro are traditionally monstered week in, week out. To the team with the worst record in the division. It writes itself doesn’t it. Just look at the back story.
And yet Boro didn’t lose. Nor even leak late on to a set-play. They won. Comfortably looking solid at the back and with two great goals on the break.Just what is going on?
Historically, culturally, psychologically everything was set up for the Boro revival to hit the buffers at Blackpool. Admit it, you expected the mandatory mugging didn’t you?
They are a club deeply divided with the crowd on the manager’s back and the chairman under sniper fire. They are middle of the worst run in their history, going into the game with seven defeats in eight after a nosedive that started with an implosion that saw five players sent off in 85 calamitous minutes.
With six loanees recalled, two regulars banned, one in the gulag – arch-Nemesis Michael Chopra was in solitary, thus preventing him getting his obligatory first goal scorer dividend (90+2) – and a couple more injured, their first team had been filleted of quantity and quality. They only had 14 available professionals and to avoid the embarrassment of an empty bench they had dragged two teenagers off the Pleasure Beach and an passing amusements arcade bingo caller.
The only surprise is that former skipper Paul Ince didn’t name himself among the substitutes to make it almost certain he would come on and score.
Viewed through the jaundiced prism of ‘typical Boro’ and with even a cursory glance at our recent history that is a gold-plated, lovingly monogrammed, nailed on defeat worth a daft quid of anyone’s money.
It was all set up for a painful but familiar coupon busting catastrophe – but Aitor Karanka appears to not know or not care about the toxic traditions of this club.
Slowly and steadily he has been reshaping the mentality of the squad.
Rewind three months and that Blackpool game would have been a defeat so predictable we could have written the report in advance. It had “stoppage time sucker punch” written through the middle of it.
They probably have ‘Boro’ sticks of rock like that in the tourist tat shops on the front.
Along with “I nicked a late goal from a corner” hats.
You know that. I know that. And some of the players know that. Opposition players and coaches certainly did and exploited it ruthlessly.
Boro’s weakness late on at set-plays was an inescapable corrosive fact that would eat away as games wore on and then loom large as the clock ran down, sparking the jitters and heralding mistakes and confusion.
There was a spell earlier this term when the weekly post-match interviews involved a series of sheepish defenders shaking their heads and shrugging in resignation as yet another late goal sneaked in from a set play.
They bemoaned ‘lack of concentration’ and ‘individual errors’ almost as if a defence that was porous under pressure was an institutional problem they had no control over.
It was a given that Boro couldn’t hold out when being bombarded in the red zone. It was expected that no matter how dominant Boro had been, no matter how many goals to the good, they would wobble at the death and concede from a dead-ball. It is what it is.
But anyone who has seen Boro play over the past month will have seen a team zealously setting about defending their own goal at all cost as a collectives. And with four clean sheets in five games it is working.
There has been a lot of carefully crafted remedial underpinning going on to shore up the fragile foundations.Drills and reinforcement, shape and organisation, work-rate and concentration. Getting bodies in the way of shots, heading away the danger, putting it into Row Z… I almost got a touch on one Ayala clearance that sailed up into the press box at Blackpool. I missed but I think it hit Coxy. If BoroWorld went down, that’s why.
It is a back to basics approach that is starting to show benefits. Structurally, the team is now a far more solid proposition. Mentally too. The damage to self-belief from the goals against column has been repaired.
As we have discussed before, the whole the team are pressing higher up the pitch and defending from the front, with the forward players chasing and closing and harry the opposition in their own half, forcing mistakes, preventing balls forward and cutting out danger before it is fully formed.
But it is in the rear guard that the steely new approach is most visible.Boro’s defence now looks fierce and formidible with blocking tackles flying in from all angles.
Incursions into the Boro half are chased by a posse of vigilante Boro midfielders and mugged en masse by buzzing backs before they get into the box.
At times when Boro are defending it looks like the entire team are in and around the box, buzzing about and getting a foot in, Without conceding penalties not. Yet they can still break at speed and in numbers and that is a potent combination.
The change started with some minor tweaks to the shape with two holding midfielders to protect the back line and the full-backs repeatedly warned that they were not to go marauding forward. All that cavalier over-lapping down the flanks is so last year.
George Friend in particular has had to rein in his attacking instinct and now looks like a confident, physical and uncompromising defender rather than a displaced winger.
Whereas once he spent much of his time out of position and running back from a an attack that had broken down he has now taken up brooding residence in a far deeper role and patrols his territory like a hungry rottweiler in a scrap yard, quick to go for interlopers with a snap.
No more stepovers and drag-backs in the box: he is tackling quickly and cleanly, clearing the ball decisively and barging opponents aside to win headers.
On the other side Jozsef Varga has shown similar zeal in defending that once vulnerable zone too. He has awareness and a turn of pace to track wingers and good timing in the tackle. He quickly came to terms with the impressive early trickery of Blackpool’s Tom Ince to shackle their main threat.
And a word too for much maligned Rhys Williams. Increasingly the Aussie has been a boo-boy target this season and has struggled to find his feet both in the middle and at right-back but after a few torrid roastings his recent displays as a centre-back have shown a flash of his former promise. He was impressively solid at Blackpool.
Then there is Daniel Ayaya. His early displays were perfectly balanced in that for every goal he scored he would gift one to the opposition but now he is maturing into a commanding and athletic presence in the box and a towering figure in the air.
And to add to the mix we now have not only Jonathan Woodgate but also a Nigerian international. It bodes well for Boro’s development towards being an effective outfit.
Boro have won four league games out of five and that tells its own story – and crucially they have kept four clean sheets too.
Not all those games have been pretty – Millwall was poor fare and the first hour of the clash at Blackpool wasn’t for the purists either – but they have been instructive.
They have all given pointer as to how Boro are evolving into an archetypal fully functional Championship side.
From being soft touches and brittle at the back Boro are maturing into a steely, spirited side that are hard to break down.They are becoming increasing hard to beat and more than capable of nicking one on the break. And that, as we know, is the template on which promotion winning teams are built in this division.
Not that Boro are yet the finished article. But they are steadily progressing towards being a team that is more than the sum of its parts, a team that can compete in the Championship’s war of attrition.