SO, Brentford: Boro ended up with what may well turn out to be the most favourable of play-off opponents – but despite some strange dynamics and off field orchestration in the closing stages of the Brighton game, that is more by accident than design.
A frustrating, flat final fixture saw Aitor Karanka’s team dawdle lethargically and slouch back into fourth place and as a result they are now pitted against the Championship’s real surprise package this term.
After the mounting chuntering about the lacklustre limp over the finishing line on a day when an explosive leap from the play-off launch pad was the pre-match minimum demand, being paired with the Bees was generally well received.
In fact, in the nuanced post-mortem it almost felt like Boro had been rewarded for their failure to beat Brighton. The camp was happy. It felt as if it that was desired outcome.
In that swift reordering of new realities that fans master in their infancy, some people quickly rewired their world view to shape and articulate a scenario that the pairing had been planned and played for.
The pre-match projection of fans’ fears had focused on the need to avoid first Derby and then secondly Ipswich so being partnered with Brentford when the music stopped seemed a good result. a successful strategic silver lining hewn from a dismal grey day on the pitch.
The Bees won’t be a push-over of course. Aitor knows that. Brentford’s achievement in sticking with the play-off pack despite dug-out turmoil (boss Mark Warburton is being harshly replaced even if he secures a second successive promotion) is more impressive in many ways than Bournemouth’s title win.
They have been organised and industrious and very hard to beat at home and showed great determination in refusing to stick to the script and fall away as the drama unfolded.
Despite that, the West London club are still widely regarded as the weakest of the top six with the smallest, least expensive and least experienced squad and the hardest task in escaping football gravity.
So, obviously, if you could pick a team to play over two legs for a place in the Wembley final, they’re the one most supporters would opt for.
And so too, it seems, would shrewd Karanka.
Hmmmmmmm. I wonder how Ipswich are getting on?
There appeared to be a conscious change in Boro’s game plan in the closing stages that suggested the objective of the game had subtly changed.
As news came in of results elsewhere and the bench kept track of the “as it stands” table and the stopwatch, it looked as if a decision had been made to hold what we had – fourth place – and opt for Brentford rather than going flat out for the win that would take Boro back above Norwich and mean they would face Ipswich.
Skipper Grant Leadbitter was summoned over to the touchline for a quick conflab with the gaffer and then he relayed the instructions to the team. He quickly laid a long pass back to Dimi Konstantopoulos and issued the universally recognised ‘calm down’ gesture to the centre-backs then soon after directed Emilio Nsue to take his time over a throw.
It seemed that the team had been directed from the dug-out to ease off the gas, in itself a feat in a game that was slow so it appeared to be buffering.
Boro had never really come out of the blocks with the intensity, tempo, desire and zest we expected. They never went for the jugular. It wasn’t both barrels from the off. It wasn’t even one barrel. The odd pot-shot yes, but hardly a barrage. If anything Brighton started better and had a couple of half-hearted chances.
Boro did gradually lumber into control of the contest. Slwoly. Yes, play was raggy and poor, sloppy overhit or passes were going astray with frustrating regularity – but they were still on top for most of the game and while they lacked a cutting edge or a killer final ball they had enough possession and chances to suggest that they could probably win if only they would step up a gear and bare their teeth.
But then, instead of attacking and trying to force a breakthrough in the closing spell, Boro changed tack, and started to pass back, to recycle patient possession in No Mans’ Land and hold the ball while Brighton were happy enough to sit on their deckchairs and wait for the whistle while mentally ticking off their holiday suitcase check list.
Boro didn’t actually take it into the corners but there was a definite sense that they were running the clock down. Frustrated fans were loudly shouting tactical advice and demanding that Boro “attack! Attack! Attack!” and urging them to hit the accelerator but instead the team were playing with the handbrake on.
When Boro won a corner Boro fans – and Brighton fans too, it must be said – screamed and gestured for Dimi to get himself up for it. At Fulham Boro were going hell for leather and he did scramble urgently forward to join an all out desperate last assault. Against Brighton he settled down in his sun-lounger and chilled.
If it was worth the gamble to win the game last week, then why not this time out? There was nothing to lose in going for it as there was at Craven Cottage. Boro would stil be in a play-off place, they couldn’t drop below fourth.
It seemed quite clear that Aitor was more than happy to hold on to what he had.
To all intents and purposes in the closing stages Boro appeared to be playing for the draw, a result that would suit them just fine: fourth place, a reasonably favourable tie in the play-off semi-final, vital energy conserved in the closing stages and, crucially, no injuries or bookings picked up chasing a marginally improved position in the table.
He had already rested top scorer Patrick Bamford and right-back Ryan Fredericks, key men carrying knocks but who would surely have been patched up and played through the pain barrier had victory been crucial.
That all makes sense going into two Titanic games now.
We know that Aitor is meticulous and pragmatic and will do whatever is needed to achieve the long-term object for the team, which is promotion. For him everything is geared to the big picture, winning the war rather than the battle. We wouldn’t expect anything less.
So in terms of the changing shape of the table and the tedious strait-jacket constraining the game at hand, can it be seen as a masterstoke of micro-management? Possibly.
There is a hint of mentor Mourinho about that kind of cynical in-game management. But it can only have been decided in the heat of battle, in real time as a reaction to the shifting sands of the summit shake-up. It can’t possibly have been planned in advance.
It was another crazy afternoon of flux at the top of the Championship table with the battle for the last two play-offs spots ebbing and flowing all afternoon. Again.
Over the course of the 90 minutes of the Brighton game Boro were facing three different opponents in two different time-slots as results twisted and turned and anyone stood by the computer trying to steal a march on booking hotels or train tickets would have been left tearing their hair out.
At kick-off the table had Boro facing Derby – a prospect that seemed to scare many Boro fans – but their four month self-inflicted slo-mo implosion went to its logical conclusion.
We have beaten Derby convincingly twice this term but battle-scarred Teessiders remained wary because of the “typical Boro” factor and the fear of Steve McClaren. But they have unravelled in recent months since Steve McClaren “had his world turned upside down” after being courted by Newcastle – again – and potential divisive new faces were added to the dressing room mix in January. At the death a brittle team lacking cohesion and belief cracked at home to a Reading side wearing sombreros.
The Rams leaked early, missed a penalty and then folded and in the end the long time title favourites finished up in only eighth place and “on their holidays.”
Then Norwich scored as they geared up for a resounding 4-2 win over a Fulham side safe and sunshine bound and quickly the Canaries had clawed into third spot and Boro were suddenly looking set to play Ipswich on a Saturday.
Veteran Boro fans groaned. Yes, we battered Ipswich 4-1 here earlier this term but there is a time honoured contractual obligation to lose at Portman Road – often heavily – and Tractorboys targetman Daryl Murphy is fast approaching Arch-Nemesis status.
Aitor hasn’t been at the club very long but he knows this to be an institutional hoodoo. Plus, whatever else you want to say about wily old dug-out ‘by hook or by crook’ merchant Mick McCarthy, he is a specialist in getting teams out of the Championship and you wouldn’t want to go nose-to-nose with him. How confusing would that be. Ipswich are the utilitarian street-fighters of the six sides left. No one wanted them.
But late in the game on the dynamics changed again as Ipswich leaked away at Blackburn with Boro striking target Jordan Rhodes (“he’s one of our own”) doing the damage – and then soon after Brentford turned the screw against relegated Wigan and climbed above the Tractorboys on goal difference and they became our potential opponents.
So then it was time for Aitor to make a decision: Stick or twist. Go for broke and chase third place and a trip to Ipswich or kill the game and plan for Brentford?
Brighton but not breezy: Boro put the hand-brake on.
Boro have won home and away against the Bees but the bonus was that the way the fixtures were shaping up going into the final 10 minutes favoured Boro in other ways too.
Not only would they play Brentford and avoid a hoodoo ground but potential Wembley opponents Norwich and Ipswich would meet. The duo would be thrown into a bitter bout of passionate pitchfork waving in what is always a fiercely competitive “Old Farm” derby.
Given the high-stakes, the history of animosity off the field, the hysterical atmosphere over two legs in those heated encounters, there was a decent to high chance the sides would kick lumps out of each other in battles that may leave them emotionally drained and suffering with bumps and bruises – and possibly even Wembley bans.
There is also the possible faint hint of Aitor being aware of Boro’s fragility on the lunch-time kick-offs. He has mentioned it before now. Boro lost home and away to Leeds at lunchtime, froze completely at Bournemouth and Watford and snoozed at home to Brighton. Even away at Brentford – a 1-0 win – they were second best for most of the game and forced into a frantic rearguard action in a televised mugging.
In contrast Boro have been far better in evening matches. Of their 11 games under floodlights Karanka’s times have lost just one – away at Wolves – and their season-shaping wins have included the gritty victories at Derby and Norwich. Now that may just be a coincidence but it is a productive one and you can see how it would be seized on by a coach acutely aware of the nuances of game management.
They all may be almost imperceptible factors in the big scheme of things – but tight games are decided by fine margins; an extra yard of pace here, a few percentage points in the battery there, a lick of paintwork, a player having the edge over an opponent in previous game sewing a seed of doubt. very advantage, no matter how small, could prove decisive.
But the day had an ironic sting in the tail. as the other results came in. Had Boro forced the late winner at Fulham then the Brighton game, instead of being a dead rubber, could have been the promotion decider it was scripted as when tickets were snapped up in a frenzy.
Watford slipped up on the final day and could only draw at home to Sheffield Wednesday, a result that taunted Teesside. Had Boro delivered and won at Craven Cottage then three points at home to Brighton would have been taken them to an impress 90 – enough to claw them above the Hornets. Although naturally in those conditions the Hornets would have been going hell for leather to win. It may have prodded them to the title