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.