A GOOD point gained at Reading? Or two poor ones squandered? Or both.
We know from pop-star-turned Professor Brian Cox and his trendy TV brain-busting science shows that in quantum physics matter can exist in two distinct opposite forms – wave and particle – simultaneously. Maybe in football, when placed under the extremes of pressure and heat at either end of the periodic league table, there is a similar phenomena with points from draws taking on a contradictory dual existence.
It certainly felt like two points dropped in the ground. Aitor Karanka said as much on the whistle – “we have not lost the game but we have lost two points” – as he mused on a flurry of spurned sitters and fine stops from yet another keeper saving his best display of the season for the visit of Boro.
Yet his industrious skipper Grant Leadbitter took an assertive opposite view of the nature of the day’s point yield. Asked if it was two dropped the Mackem midfield metronome snapped back: “No. We are a point closer to the top.”
That is undeniably, scientifically, statistically provably true. Boro have edged closer to the summit and to the automatic promotion places by banking a precious point as the top two – Bournemouth and Ipswich – slipped up.
When it was suggested Boro were having a bit of “a blip” he bristled and rejected the claim out of hand, pointing out they were unbeaten in four, had only lost one in 12 and were well placed and in touch with the leaders at the half-way stage.
Again, it is very hard to argue with the reality of the mathematics.
And yet if felt as if the game, in an abstract sense, was a set-back That may be a reflection of the wider league table context rather than the reality of a single point: Bournemouth’s bubble of invincibility was finally popped by the sharp edges of that Manager of the Month gong handed over to Eddie Howe on Friday while home boys Ipswich lost at Portman Road for the first time since August.
The maths of the day once again showed the constant state of flux at the top of the Championship. After dipping in and having a good rummage around in the big bag of football cliches we know that an away point is “always a good point.”
But is it? The draw at Reading should still be considered a “good point”. They are dramatically improved under Clarke – like Karanka a fully trained up Mourinho acolyte, they are now unbeaten in four games under him and are packed with internationals throughout the team. They are no mugs. Objectively, it was a “good point.”
But subjectively if didn’t feel great. Hot on the heels of a similar stalemate at Blackburn – Boro bossed it for long spell and created chances but were denied by a keeper having a worldie – the Reading result stung more than an isolated draw would.
By Karanka’s calculations that is four points dropped. Throw in the cut-and-paste nil-nil at home to Blackpool and he said we would be top by now, although of course that is theoretical mathematics and part of a different module. It is ‘true’ but is an abstract and intertwined with so many other factors – other teams results also being corrected for what should have been – and leads you into a complex world of “what ifs?”
On the other hand, Leadbitter’s Formula sees two points gained from two away games. That is true too. And more concrete. Although it is harder to sell as a positive and a gain when we have been so upbeat and the expectations – and stakes – have risen.
The good/bad point contradiction is hard to resolve. And it changes with perspective, on how other games panned out. Maybe the notional value of a point is dependant on its relationship to other results and conditional on the position in the table or how if fits into a sequence of previous outcomes. A draw after a defeat is a poor point and the signal for hand-wringing angst and phone-in fuming. The same result, played to exactly the same game script and with the same tone of performance, after a win is lauded. Obviously.
Two draws on the spin has led to some nervous pencilled working out and created an anxious ripple in the Borosphere as once-bitten supporters show signs of the January jitters buried deep in our DNA. You don’t have to look back too far in history to see frightening evidence that it is possible to blow a good position at Christmas. Twice in three years under Tony Mowbray sprint sparters Boro spluttered and slithered from being promotion contenders to floundering in the final furlong.
But the two no-score draws on the bounce have to be put in a wider context. They are not just two results on the bounce that can be used to project fears onto. They are part of a long productive run that has put Boro in a strong position to make a serious title tilt.
We live in times when football has a very short memory span, when a good strike or save or result is immediately lauded by pundits as “the best EVER”, when the media’s sinister fickle finger of crisis is quick to point at any club or any manager that lose two or three games on the spins and when you really are now seen as only as good as your last game. But think back beyond Blackburn and what now seems eons ago… it is not long since bubbling Boro were battering Nottingham Forest in front of a full house throbbing with feel-good vibes. And the home game before that saw Boro dismantle Derby on TV amid calls to abandon the fixtures and hand the trophy over as a formality .
Boro have taken five points from nine and are disappointed at what is being perceived as “a blip”. (How many games constitutes a blip these days? Was it always so few?). But not so long ago Boro having a “blip” would have been marked by losing games like Blackburn and Reading. Probably 1-0. Probably to a late goal leaked. Probably from a corner. Now we are drawing them, bossing them and being denied by shot-stopper wonder shows.
Extend the timeline and the perspective back a bit beyond Reading and Blackburn and Boro have taken a respectable 11 points from a possible 18; they have lost just once in 12; they have not lost at home since August; they have the best defence in the division by far. All are reasons for optimism and important building blocks of a successful season.
Boro now have a zealous approach to keeping clean sheets throughout the team from front to back with every player defending, snarling and digging deep . Look at the stats and you can see more zeroes than the Japanese air force above Pearl Harbour: Four in a row, five in six, 13 in 25 league games, 25 in all in 48 games over the the last 12 months.
Boro have it spot on at one end and have become a formidable unit almost impossible to penetrate. But at the other? The current consensus is that Boro are lacking fire-power and that a lack of goals will cost us come May. But there is no need to panic. It is not as if Boro are toothless up front. It is not like last season when the long eight goal barren run was marked by rigid defence in depth, a tactical shroud to stifle opposition and the occasional long ball forward for Danny Graham to chase and hold and wait for reinforcements.
This team are completely different. They are playing attacking football, they push high up the pitch, they buzz about with a high pace and intensity, snapping and hassling the opposition to force mistakes and pick and pass their way through with movement and deft distribution. And they are creating chances. Lots of chances.
And it not as if they are not scoring goals at all. It is easy to cherry-pick the stats and say that Boro have not scored an away goal in three games as if they are flaccid up front but they have totally dominated in two of those games. And they scored five in the away game before. This is not a “Boro Nil” situation like we have have seen in the past.
They put four past top seven sides Norwich and Brentford (both who arrived at the Riverside as form sides) so it is not as it they can’t beat the top sides. They beat Derby. They beat Forest. They are scoring goals – and with such a miserly defensive record they don’t need to get two or three to guarantee a point as they did just two years ago.
Boro may not be Bournemouth who have scored sixes and eights in eye-catching wins but that column can not be the only criteria for weighing up the potential strengths of a team. And Boro are not shot-shy. They are the seventh top scorers in the division and are not lagging far behind most of that pack – but have by far the best defence so only two teams, the current top two, have a better goal difference. And that is not a massive gap.
So Boro are doing well. Or not. They are well placed to push on. Or not. Depending on your perspective. Which is another contradictory thing that has a dual nature in football.
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