Boro Nil: The Zen Of A Goalless Draw

I’LL probably get pelters from the Angry Brigade for this… but I enjoyed Boro’s ‘noughty but nice’ display against Blackburn.


I understand that football’s default setting is to be deeply disappointed by a double blank.
It is an outrage against the beautiful game, an aberration and insult to the legion of legends who shaped our perceptions of beauty with wonder-strikes and magical moments.
There is rarely anything outstanding to stick in the collective memory bank from a nil-nil.
You get 38 seconds of begrudged footage on the end of the Football League Show and national newspaper reporters are contractually bound to use the sneering words ‘bore draw’ in their intro.
And of course, goals win games. That is a given. The workaday stuff at the other end is dirty and unseen, rigid and organised, mechanical and regimented. It is about parts and cogs. It is all about stifling individual genius. It is hard to love something so consciously cold and negative. It is a necessary evil.
All that has helped create a culture of hostility towards a solid rear guard and made the word “defensive” a perjorative. So a goalless game is seen as the very antithesis of the super soaraway Sky Sports end-to-end action-packed extended highlights package that supporters are led to believe is the norm.
If the goals are not flying in then by definition the game has fallen short of punter-pleasing perfection. At the extreme end of the spectrum fans feel cheated of their goal fix if defences prevail. Booooo.
But that said, we’ve booed plenty of 2-2 draws home and away this season too. And a 3-3. Wigan, Forest, Bolton, Bournemouth… no one went away from those games praising the team’s commitment to entertainment because they leaked a few late on to make it exciting.
Net-bulging is not necessarily the only goal standard hallmark of excellence. Defence is also an art, a vital part of every successful team’s armoury. And, with that in mind, I have enjoyed seeing the recent evolution of Boro’s new water-tight rearguard.
Eight cleans sheets out of ten. And five in a row at home. That new found systemic solidity is something to be savoured.
Maybe it is just me getting to grips with the Zen of Aitor Karanka”s rigid new mentality, becoming enlightened by the repetition of reporting the mantra of the miserly. Maybe it is the first signs of Stockholm Syndrome and I’ve started to develop sympathy for my tormentors. Maybe I’m just easily pleased.
So I enjoyed the game against Blackburn. Boro played well. They functioned as a team. They defended superbly, they dominated the midfield and they created a string of good chances.
But of course, it was nil-nil. They didn’t score and that was very frustrating.
Goals win games and the formerly free scoring Boro haven’t been able to find one for the last seven hours and 15 minutes. That’s a mini-Ice Age of emptiness.
People will read the score and project onto it all manner of negative imagery. And they will connect it in a chain of frustration and futility to the previous two double blanks.
Yes, the Blackburn match came hot on the heels of spirit-sapping and disappointing goalless draws at home to Wigan and then at Doncaster – but it was a very different beast.
The Blackburn game wasn’t anything like those sterile shot-shy (no) shows. This was a more polished performance, it was a more nuanced nil-nil, a more balanced blank.
It was a goalless game from which Boro took just one point but can take plenty of positives.
Defending is an essential art for any team and Boro are becoming adept now.
Whereas in the past, edging towards the whistle was a fraught and nervous affair, Boro now look comfortable in the closing stages. There may still be instinct age-old panic in the stands but on the pitch there is a solid serenity.
The team as a whole look capable and calm and they work as a collective. The mental and tatctical framework has been established now and whoever slots into it – there were three changes at the back against Blackburn – the component parts look equally comfortable.
That bodes well for the future of this team, if not this season then certainly next.
And, as we know, all successful teams on Teesside have been built from the back, from Big Jack to Steve Mac.
Karanka has been rebuilding the team’s mentality and dynamics on the hoof. It is still a work in progress and there is still tinkering to be done and new players to be slotted in.
But it shouldn’t be forgotten that just two months ago this was a porous team that scored freely but leaked profusely – especially in the latter stages.
Now they have clocked up eight clean sheets in 10 games. That is a very useful foundation for the manager to build something more substantial on. Clean sheets are not always easy to sell to supporters – and especially during a goal drought – but are still valuable.
There were some Pavlovian boos on the whistle and I’m told some angry tacticians on the phone-ins denouncing the new boss for negativity and the new system for being blunt.
But let’s be clear about this: the shape, the system, the team worked.
Boro stifled the opposition (including the Championship’s most prolific striker over the past three seasons in Jordan Rhodes), set the shape and tempo and dominated possession.
And while ring-rusty Danny Graham was isolated at times, they carved open an in-form side higher up in the league almost at will down the flanks – and especially down the left where George Friend and Mustapha Carayol were a potent pairing.
Far from being a stodgy nil-nil Boro created a family bucket sized feast of chances, shots and corners. It was a one sided affair and by almost any conceivable statistical measure bar one – admittedly the important one – Boro were by far the better side.
Only a superb shot-stopping masterclass by Paul Robinson prevented Boro battering Blackburn. Three brilliant early stops from the former England man – two shots from Carayol shot and a Nathaniel Chalobah header – then a great reaction in a scramble to snatch it away from the feet of Graham kept it clean in the first half.
Then after the break he came out to block in a one-on-one when Muzzy wriggled into the box and then made a superb back-pedalling finger-tip save from an Albert Adomah dipping effort. That’s a game-changing wondershow that saved Rovers blushes.
Throw in two freak deflections off defenders that looped just over, a flurry of flag-kicks and some other standard Championship huffing and puffing half-chances and you have a one-sided display, a tactical success, a system that worked and a group of players that largely did their job well. For me, that’s a good days work. Even with the ‘nil.’
Naturally there will be some emotional discharge, teeth gnashing, managerial finger-pointing and scape-goating because Boro didn’t win. And not just didn’t win but didn’t score. Again. I understand that. But I still enjoyed it.
Damn you Paul Robinson.

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59 thoughts on “Boro Nil: The Zen Of A Goalless Draw

  1. Paulista Park is still suffering inconsolable grief for the dear departed, Tony Mowbray. That’s sad, but things might look better to him if he would only take a more realistic view of what has happened.
    PP: “He inherited an absolute mess, it was a job nobody else wanted and one he only took on because he’s a Boro fan. Yet the minimum required of him this season was a top six finish.”
    “Inherited a mess” is certainly true, but the same is true for Aitor Karanka. “Job nobody else wanted”, no evidence for that, and I doubt that it’s true. “The minimum required of him this season was a top six finish”. No evidence for that, the only evidence is to the contrary.
    PP: “Karanka has taken over a club that is financially stable with the advantages of connections with Mourinho, Mendes and Kenyon. He’s also got a sizeable loan and transfer budget, certainly in comparison to Mowbray (net spend minus £9m).”
    The financial stability of the club remains questionable. It still seems to depend on Steve Gibson underwriting its losses, although to a lesser extent than previously.
    The “connections” are a strange stick with which PP chooses to beat the club. He predicted that these connections would lead to the team being filled with fragile Spanish ballerinas during the January transfer window. That doesn’t seem to have happened.
    The size of Aitor’s budget is unknown to PP, or to me, so how does he compare it to Tony’s budget, which we also don’t know?
    Tony’s “net spend minus £9m” is a figure that can only be arrived at by creative accounting, attributing to him all the proceeds from selling players that he hadn’t bought. Most of that income should really be offset against the losses incurred by previous managers, or attributed to the Academy.
    Also, wages are as important as transfer fees these days. We have no hard information about how that compares for Tony and Aitor, but it is probably similar.
    All we do know about Tony’s budget is that he said on more than one occasion that he was perfectly satisfied with it.
    PP: “What’s the minimum requirement of Karanka? Presumably more than just a play off position.”
    We don’t know, any more than we knew this for Tony. My guess is that success means achieving promotion within the 2.5 year term of his contract. Anything else will not be success, and we will have to wait and see what the club does in that event. A near miss may lengthen his tenure, relegation form probably won’t.
    Tony seems to have had a more relaxed timetable. His job was safe as long as “progress” was being made. Unfortunately for Tony, Steve Gibson decided that there was no progress.
    **AV writes: For two years Mogga had financial constraints and because of that the expectations were tempered with realism and as you say “progress” was deemed enough. He was doing sound and necessary remedial work off the pitch and that helped offset the frustrations at his two full seasons tailing off on it
    But in football, as soon as you spend money, the stakes rise dramatically. Last summer Mogga spent what was in Championship terms a relatively hefty sum of money. That takes away a crucial layer of mitigation, increases expectation and reduces the levels of patience.

  2. I am happy to praise Mogga for the work he did helping get the debt down, keeping us going in trying times, the restructuring of the club.
    I don’t wear the ‘purity’ of his football. Is that the sit back and wait and see for half an hour which was his own mantra? Is that the Bristol City are coming, who havent scored since the Romans invaded, so lets totally rip how we play and launch it formation? Is that the how many holding midfielders can we get at Birmingham selection policy?
    Just praise him for the good work he did for the club, think of him as a legend which he is.

  3. Perhaps the problem with Mowbray was that he tried to ‘explain’ his tactics to the wider public, Karanka doesn’t. Don’t provide the fickle fans with a stick to beat you would be a wise motto.

  4. Reading Bernie’s piece and talking to others it seems like more people are coming round to my point that tactically we may be a little over cautious.
    It’s slightly odd that this has come about after the Blackburn game, when we actually created plenty of chances – I don’t think we could really criticise too much there. We do need to look at ways of getting more bodies forward though without leaving the back door open.
    Bernie has also already made my point about the no. 10 role. Like him, I’m hoping that Tomlin makes a good fist of it. Emnes, Butterfield, Ledesma and Leadbitter have all had a crack there without convincing. It’s a tough job but one that I sincerely hope Luke Williams can grow into long term. Kamara will no doubt get a go first.
    Mowbray still splits opinion I see. My view is that very few people seem to take a balanced view. In three years as manager there was a settling in period followed by a very good end to the 2010/11 season and a very good start to 2011/2012. 11/12 finished really poorly as did 12/13, though we started ok that season. Then of course, we made a bad start to this year.
    In terms of results throughout his tenure, it was reasonably even between the good times and the bad and those that insist Mowbray was clueless and dreadful only seem to remember the bad (though it was very, very bad at times)
    We do have to give him credit for the cost cutting though. Of course some of the signings were rubbish – you’re going to get that when you’ve haven’t any money because you’re forced to take more punts. I do agree though, that it would have been easier to accept had he taken those punts on our own academy graduates.
    The squad he left was better than the one he inherited in my view, and a damn sight more affordable which is key to the future.
    He also did try to play attractive football for most of his time, but I agree that we seemed to lose the thrust of what we were trying to do at times. The game plan, whilst almost always built around retaining possession, seemed to become incoherent.
    My overall view then is that Mowbray did essential work off the field and left us in a better general state than he found us, but results were mixed and having finally cleared the decks last summer, a decent start this season was essential. We didn’t get it.
    I like the vast majority of what I’ve seen from Karanka so far, but I felt very confident about Mowbray after four months as well. What I can say is that if the football is till pretty dour in twelve months time I will have some stronger concerns.

  5. Mythbuster:
    PP can be a bit partisan, but he’s being as realistic as you here.
    Karanka didn’t inherit a mess, he inherited a decent squad whose main failings were the result of poor defensive coaching and micromanagement. He was likely the only man we could afford who would have us still playing actual attractive football, unless you can suggest some alternatives.
    And AV himself has talked about — and I’m pretty sure SG has been directly quoted as saying — that the play-offs were the target for Mogga this season.
    PP has no hard numbers to go on, but Mowbray definitely reduced our outgoings and brought in some good value players — maybe not 100% of them, but I’d definitely call his overall transfer dealings a positive. It was during his reign that the Gazette moved from the “shipping out high earners” narrative to the current, limited but real transfer budget. Karanka isn’t receiving more than TM did by the end, but TM is responsible for what they both have/had to work with.
    The minus £9m is in large amount in his credit; he left the squad stronger than he found it, and over the course of that he turned some of our assets (or dead weight, however you want to look at it) into cash.
    The behind-the-scenes work is what will give us the ability to produce and purchase the players that will ensure the results hopefully for years to come. And I really don’t get this rewriting of history about Mowbray’s tenure — he gave us goals, he strengthened the squad, and before he tried to play Jenga with our defensive strategy we were on our way to being a formidable side. He became his own worst enemy, but now he’s gone the team is free to excel.
    Karanka’s fixed the hole at the back. Now he has to bring out the best in our offense. That’s his real test. Mowbray already showed that our squad is better than the 1-0 grind.

  6. The Prophet Bob expresses several opinions above about Tony Mowbray’s period of management. That’s fine, all football fans are entitled to their opinions.
    But the intention of what I wrote was not to find fault with Tony, just to point out that the facts don’t actually support his sacking as being the catastrophic ending of a golden age.
    Tony was just another manager, like Gareth Southgate and Gordon Strachan before him, who tried his best but failed. Things might have turned out differently, but the sad truth is that they didn’t. His previous connections to the club made his dismissal sadder still, but no less inevitable.
    On the other hand, when it comes to matters of fact, The Prophet Bob seems to be quite inventive. That may be quite useful for prophecy, but it does muddy the waters when we’re looking at the past. For example, he writes:
    “And AV himself has talked about — and I’m pretty sure SG has been directly quoted as saying — that the play-offs were the target for Mogga this season”
    Is there some reference for either of those statements? As a matter of fact, AV wrote on September 14th, 2013 (a month after the season had started):
    “The tipping point for Gibson is, as always, when he believes the club – on and off the pitch – is not making progress, no matter how slow or how much of that is beneath the surface.”

  7. Mythbuster-
    The top six as a minimum requirement was taken from Phil’s article on Mowbray’s sacking in the Gazette 22/10/13.
    I can’t post a link but the piece is headed “It had to be done but the chairman didn’t relish the task of sacking Mowbray.” It was written after Phil and AV met with Gibson following Mowbray’s sacking.
    Paragraph 14 reads:
    “Gibson, whose minimum requirement from the current season was a top six finish, is not only the owner of the club he supported as a boy, he’s a football fan.”

  8. Paulista Park wrote:
    “The top six as a minimum requirement was taken from Phil’s article on Mowbray’s sacking in the Gazette 22/10/13.”
    That piece is mainly an opinion piece from Philip Tallentire, written after the event, although it claims to be summarising one or more interviews. It contains no direct quotes from Steve Gibson, and there is no implication that this requirement was ever given to Tony Mowbray.
    Phil wrote a similar opinion piece at exactly the same time, headlined “Tony Mowbray sacked because Steve Gibson feared Boro relegation fight”. You can take your choice as to what you think is the real reason Steve sacked Tony.
    So can you point me to somewhere that this top-six requirement was expressed by Steve Gibson, even in an indirect way, before the date of Tony’s dismissal? Obviously it helps Steve to justify the sacking by suggesting this after the event, simply to underline Tony’s failure.
    Of course, none of this is really important. Tony was sacked, and that’s all we really know for sure. The difference between us is that I don’t think that was an injustice, and you still do. I am happy to move on with the new manager, who may or may not succeed. You still don’t seem ready to do that.

  9. It was mentioned more than once as being the chairman’s target. In print. You can dispute its interpretation, but it’s a bit much to suggest I invented it. And what else have I invented? Both the few financial facts we’re made aware of on here, the players we’ve been left with, and the general noise from SG and AV all point to Karanka not having “inherited a mess”.
    I’m not agreeing with PP, but that doesn’t mean I’m agreeing with you.

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