BORO have just easily dismantled “the best team in the division.” Easily. Dismantled. The table-toppers and promotion favourites were picked apart in a televised demolition of Derby that will have plenty thinking that tag has just changed hands.
Patrick Bamford will take most of the headlines, and rightly so. He has scored against the side he played for on loan last year; he has now scored seven goals in eight games; he is on-loan from Chelsea so he has a handy tag for the nationals.
Bamford scored (and celebrated like a Forest fan) and won a penalty in another superb show in a game that he admitted had given him butterflies and a restless night before and so yes, give him the headlines. He deserves all the attention he gets after a magic month in which he has staked his claim to be a first team fixture and consistently showed us every part of the strikers’ skills set.
Bamford: can’t sleep for Butterflies, stings like a bee
But the most effective component in Karanka’s machine was the engine-room: Grant Leadbitter and Adam Clayton slowly strangled Derby, stifled their midfield (Hendrick and Bryson are among the best in the division) and knocked them out of their stride. The dynamic duo were first to everything, closed and pressed, tackled and blocked and barged the Rams around relentlessly in the opening 20 minutes to set the tone.
They were backed by persistent work on the flanks with industrious Adam Reach especially quickly pressing his full-back and forcing mistakes and with Vossen and Bamford buzzing around too the Derby defence – the second best in the division after Boro – started to panic and creak and lose their discipline. Several times Boro carved jittery Derby open with crisp passing and fluid movement.
The early goal helped but tactically Boro were on top almost from the off. It felt comfortable. The high pressing and relentless closingy forced play deep into the Derby half and although the stats showed they had a lot of possession they did very little with it. They never had the chance to. They nervously got rid of the ball as if it was ticking.
Some people will say “Derby were poor.” They were. Because Boro made them look it. Thoroughly professional and meticulously prepared, Boro strangled Derby tactically, denied them space, ruffled their usual fluid possession, forced them into errors in dangerous areas and then slowly, relentlessly, clinically, turned the screw. It was fantastic.
Dimi never had a serious save to make until the death. Derby keeper Grant in contrast was kept very busy, was left exposed as his defence was peeled apart and had to make a string of crucial blocks from Bamford, Leadbitter, Reach and Vossen (although it was a great save you could be harsh and say had it been steered low and/or to the right that would have been a goal for the Belgian).
In midweek the Gazette did a Boro v Derby player-by-player rating and were roundly criticised in some quarters for being “one-sided” and “biased” giving our heroes a slight edge on the scores, which is probably natural after the rousing recent run. But if we did the ratings again after that game the gap would be far wider. I’ve always rated Bryson and Hendrick in previous encounters and you can’t argue with Martin’s goals – but which Derby player would get into Boro’s team on that show?
Boro were head and shoulders above the Rams in every department on the day: the front pair worked the defence and slowly picked them apart; the midfield seized control early on and ground Derby down and at the back Boro easily coped with Chris Martin and Co… in fact the Coldplay namesake may as well have been playing.
Steve McClaren will be smarting. He was out-thought by Aitor, sat up in the directors box serving his ban while the ex-Boro boss was sat not far away in the first 45 by choice. Karanka, who won the battle of the bosses, declared it his “best moment” yet at Boro.
Aitor: Decent view but for this one seat he is not happy
McClaren made a desperate double change at half-time and went more direct to no avail and then another switch on the hour but there was no way back. Not even Massimo Maccarone would have saved him this time. There was no prising ruthless Boro’s fingers off their throats. Then when rattled Ryan Shotton was sent off for cynical chop on Bamford it was game over. Boro could maybe have had a few more goals maybe but then again, I had a coupon with 2-0 in my pocket so was more than happy it finished as it did.
The result and the clinical way Boro despatched Derby should send out a powerful message. Not just to the rest of the Championship and to the national media who will now put Boro firmly back on the radar.
But it was also a powerful message to those among the Boro fans who remain sceptical. Six weeks ago the cynics were saying the team hadn’t played anyone yet. Since then they have passed test after test beating (or not being beaten by) a string of promotion rivals. And now they have beaten Derby, the bench-mark, the favourites, the leaders. Live on TV. Layers of lapsed loyalists and waverers would have watched that and hopefully realised that this team is fast shaping up as special. It could be a good time to climb aboard.
That display could well have sold another 500 half-season tickets and put 3000 extra bums on seats for Boxing Day. Good. For all the gripes about price and marketing and crowds and value for money, the bottom line is that the main driver to push gates up will be a winning team, consistently good performances and the prospect of success. And that is what we are seeing now. The team are showing every week that if they are not the best team in this league they must be very close.
Of course, we’ve been here before. Boro have been up at the top for Christmas twice in the past three years only to fall away, once a slither and the second time a plummet. But this team – this squad – is better organised, better prepared, has more strength in depth, more options and a more effective system than the ones that spluttered in the rest past.
Ipswich next. A strong and organised McCarthy team, good at home and one of the rival serious promotion contenders. It’ll be tough. I’d take a draw now….