SOMETIMES you just have to trust the manager. He picks a high-risk pick and mix team that bamboozles the fans – and then Boro comfortably beat a title rival in a promotion six pointer and finish the night on top of the league!
Aitor can throw some curve ball selections that raise eye-brows but by and large in his tenure he has got it right. Naturally when the team was named there was a mandatory weekly gnashing and wailing: “What is Aitor doing?” “He’s clueless.” “Why drop X? Y should start.” “This has a one nil defeat written all over it.” It is a weekly ritual. And as so often before, the manager is proved to be right.
After Saturday’s left-field selection shocker against Birmingham – an UNCHANGED TEAM – football’s laws of nature demanded the Karmic balance was restored with a substantial shake-up and a big dose of Teeside Tinkerman tactical jiggerypokery.
Well Aitor certainly did that. Not just four changes, we are used to that, but a clutch of absolute bombshells. Grant Leadbitter, Cristhian Stuani and Albert Adomah were all dropped for what was on paper Boro’s biggest test of the season so far against a well drilled title rival packed with Premier League talent. Plus of course David Nugent was banned and everyone was on tenterhooks waiting to see who would go up front .
Yes, the strength sapping heavy pitch against Brum may have left some leaden legs that needed resting and no doubt there was half an eye on the trip to Brighton at the weekend so you expect changes.
But still…. big calls. Big balls. But that is what the manager is paid to do. And for him it is not just dragging and dropping favourites onto a pitch or making abstract changes, or playing to the gallery with a few populist picks. He has to keep all the balls in the air and ‘manage’ all his resources for the forthcoming fixture flurry. Had he played all the big hitters and then gone to Brighton looking ‘leggy’ there would have been hell on.
Of course, benching first team fixtures always leaves you hostage to fortune but the gaffer isn’t scared of that: he dropped Stewie and Albert at Wolves and saw a great fight back from a goal behind as Boro got off the hook. You may think that was lucky and the initial selection was wrong but he banked the points and they all count.
The biggest call against Burnley was probably dropping the captain. Simmering skipper Grant Leadbitter is Aitor’s representative on Earth, “will to win” made flesh and a snarling, seething presence on the pitch that provides the emotional fuel for the team.
Leaving him out was a big call. Unless it was on police advice to head off the potential seismic international incident should he clash with swaggering boo-magnet and self-dubbed football philosopher-king Joey Barton, in which case Aitor can claim mitigation and a public interest defence. And it was a decision that was probably passed on to the skipper by big bear Leo.
Grant has his detractors but the only previous time he has failed to start in the Championship this term – bans aside – was at Hull and that turned into a right dogs’ breakfast.
His absence did however lead the way for the populist choice Adam Forshaw to start.
Forshaw is normally restricted to a fleeting five minutes from the bench peppered with neat touches and assertive movement and has become something of a cause celebre and a stick to beat the boss with, becoming better by the week in terrace mythology to the point where sometimes you could imagine Boro are keeping Ronaldo on the bench
It was a big chance for him to stake a claim – and he certainly seized his moment.
There were plenty of flashes of attacking intent, especially in the early stages as he looked instinctively to play the the ball forward and the opposition retreated and lefy space for him and Adam Clayton to operate fluidly in but as Burnley tightened up and threw a stifling shroud of robust negativity over the game, that impact faded a bit.
But after the break when Boro stepped up a gear Forshaw was central to the extra zip. He linked up well with the more conservative Clayton in the engine room but also built an effective attacking unit with fast improving Emilo Nsue – pushed into right midfield with the absence of Stuani – in a potent pairing that cause all kinds of problems.
That duo interchanged passes and swapped positions and looked to get down the right and the pair engineered the opener as patient Boro finally carved well drilled Burnley apart, Forshaw wriggling rough two tackles to create space in the box then squaring for Nsue to stab home a crucial goal on his 50th Boro appearance.
Then there was the curve ball absence of big ticket summer signing Cristhian Stuani. Wow. You wouldn’t have found many before the game who would have called that one.
The Uruguayan has been at the heart of a hearted debate over the past few days with bitter cyber-space faction fights breaking out over whether to play him up front as a direct replacement for banned David Nugent or leave him on the right wing where he has proved useful and to maintain balance. But no-one was twitter storming the barricades with a banner calling for him to be tactically switched to the bench.
Stuani’s stint in the dug-out opened the door for much maligned marksman Kike, now pretty much downgraded to a late cameo role and without a goal since his early burst of three on two games in August.
To hear some people talk Kike is useless. In fact he has the best goals-to-minute ration at the Boro this term and is a very effective link man with a deft touch and good control who links well with midfield, albeit often too deep to hurt teams.
But like the others thrown into battle he did well. Very well. Arguably it was his best display this season (although he did well at Derby and Manchester United). In the first half he worked tirelessly holdiing the ball up well to create space and buy time for support to arrive and he made some intelligent darting runs to make himself available and pull holes in the defence.
He had a couple of shots charged down and never quite managed to getone on target but the lone front-runner role is an unforgiving one. And when he went off for Stuani he got well deserved and genuine applause.
All the changes worked. They all slotted in perfectly into the system in a display that showed the strength of the squad and the system. Boro were largely functional but showed flashes of fluidity and flair against yet another side that came to the Riverside with no ambition over than to dig in for a point.
They beavered away in a first half they dominated without really making the keeper work while a very physical Burnley rarely ventured forward – although they did bring the only save when Dimi had to block well from Boyd.
But Boro were bright after the break and once the opener flew in there was only one winner. They could have added more goals and Heaton did well to tip over a Stewie sizzler and block a George volley while Stuani rounded the keeper and took it too wide before slotting from a tight angle into the side-netting.
So, Boro nudge top ahead of Brighton on goal difference after “Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink’s QPR” came from behind to peg the Seagulls back for a draw, although level-headed Aitor isn’t getting carried away.
They opened a yawning eight point gap over Burnley, one of the big pre-season title favourites, and a 10 point one from seventh spot. It was another win at the Riverside (eight now from 11 games with two draws and just one defeat, back in August) and it was another clean sheet for the impervious back line and Dimi (celebrating his contract extension) … that is 671 minutes (11 hours and 11 minutes) since leaking a league goal at the Riverside.
Brighton next… bring it on.
And here’s what we said before….
GRAVEL throated dug-out bouncer Sean Dyche brings his plucky cut-priced Clarets side to big spending Boro tonight for what has steadily and strangely become a little bit of a grudge match. There is definitely a bit of needle there. Unrequited though.
Boro dug deep and beat them here when they were flying two years ago then in the return parked the bus at Turf Moor and then nicked it in the run in that probably took the title away from them. But it is more than that. There were a few ungraceful comments after those games that piqued Boro fans. And the Burnley crowd got a bit tetchy and took it as some kind of personal insult when party pooping Boro dared to play well there.
Then there was a lot of unnecessary sniping in the summer from lego lookalike Dyche about Boro and Derby daring to spend and distorting the Championship economy and some pleading poverty despite a £60m Premier League pay-out and £48m in parachute payments. That earned laughter and derision. Then Burnley went out and spent £9m on Andre Grey. And then signed pompous self-declared football philosopher-king and boo-magnet Joey Barton too. So expect a bit of a tense atmosphere for a big game.
On paper this is Boro’s toughest game so far. Burnley have Premier League quality and have had a steady if not spectacular start. They have a good record away from home – W3 D6 L1 – so it will be difficult… although they haven’t won in five and have failed to score in three of those . Boro’s home record is excellent but they haven’t scored many of late: two in the last three games… and one of those was a penalty. But they have won seven, drawn two and lost just one at the Riverside and conceded just two goals and that is no fluke.
The stats suggest a low scoring game and probably a draw. The number-crunchers will have it down as another nil-nil. BUT….. BUT…. this is a fixture where Boro generally struggle then someone pops up with a worldie. A Tarmo Kink Exocet. A Luke Williams rocket. A Ledesma low rasping angled effort. So look out for a Stewie sizzler or a Kike cracker to break the deadlock. And if Boro score that’s it.
Anyway, I’m locked into a 2-0/3-0 combination now and I’ll be sticking to that.
Over to you: usual drill. Make your scorecasts and predict how the game will pan out then all back here later for celebrations/recriminations.