SPIRIT is hard to quantify. It is transient. Ephemeral. It is a special ingredient in any collective endeavour – battle, labour or sport. And we saw in the 2-1 defeat to Spurs how a sudden change of state in that psychic fuel can transform a game in a flash.
Adama Traore electrified Middlesbrough, the game and the Riverside crowd and suddenly a sluggish season burst into life. Suddenly Boro had zest, zip and some spirit.
Sprint king Traore added quicksilver footwork and attacking intent and his pace petrified the Spurs defence. It pegged them back, pushed play 15 yards further up the pitch and relieved pressure on a midfield that had been minced.
Suddenly Boro were allowed to play, to keep the ball, look up, probe and to pick a progressive pass. They could attack. Game on. Suddenly they looked like a team again. . They had spirit and purpose. They had a spark. Suddenly they had a chance.
That magical moment brought hope. It isn’t a silver bullet of course. It didn’t win the game or even a point and it certainly didn’t repair the damage of a nightmare first hour. But it offered hope for the big games to come. It turned the volume of the season up. It showed Boro have something in their armoury that can hurt teams and be a catalyst on the pitch. And that they have spirit, which was in doubt for an hour.
Traore and dug-out exile Jordan Rhodes came on just before the hour mark with the game and all that August optimism gurgling down the drain. Within seconds they had ignited the crowd – fantastic throughout, patient and united and at one point early in the second half a clear man of the match – and their introduction swung the balance of play.
The former Aston Villa man hit the afterburners and wriggled forward from the edge of the Boro box in a balletic swerving run then put in a pass behind the previously underemployed Spurs defence to send Rhodes into the box.
The pass was too heavy and the keeper was out to quickly collect off his toes but that wasn’t the point: Boro had swung a punch. They had offered resistance. They had attacked. Quickly. And that snarl generated something precious. Belief. Spirit.
Soon after Ben Gibson rammed home a goal as the balance of play switched dramatically and a Spurs team that should have been out of sight were suddenly holding on.
The goal brought resurgent hope and patched up what had been a tattered and blood stained rag of morale used used to bandage deep wounds.
Because, make no mistake, silky Spurs had butchered Boro in the first half. There was a yawning quality gap that bewildered Boro slithered through. They scored two. They could easily have had two more. And a penalty. Valdes made two good point blank saves after the defence creaked and fell open. Alli put another good chance over after robbing Chambers. With every easy attack they sliced brittle Boro wide open. It was awful. Even Aitor Karanka was quick to admit that.
The midfield were stretched out in rigid, static lack-lustre lines with the dynamism of a table-football formation. The defence were in disarray, pierced by pace and movement.
It isn’t a division where novices like Boro can be anything short of fully focused and fired up. If they fall short they will be punished. And, as at Everton, they were. Collectively, Boro weren’t closing down, weren’t getting tackles in or clearing loose balls in and around the box and were parting like the Red Sea as Spurs swept into the penalty area.
Both goals were loud klaxons: this was a team that not only lacked organisation and cohesion but, it seemed, also belief. Heads had gone down. They were slow to react. They gave up the chase. The basic building blocks broke down. There were signs of internal friction as Valdes and Clayton growled at each other. It was frightening.
Boro were rightly booed off. Not for losing. Most fans accept that will happen plenty in the Premier League. They were booed for failing to put up a fight.
Yes, Spurs were serious title contenders until the death last season and have started this term with the same momentum so were always going to be a tough test. But the yawning gap in performance between the sides was scary and Boro were nowhere near bridging it.
Spurs were faster in feet and thought, were physically stronger, zipped the ball around with pace and purpose and when they attacked it was with cold-eyed intent.
There wasn’t just a quality gap. There was a physical gap: Boro left space all over the pitch to be exploited ruthlessly. They struggled to get a grips with the slick movement of the Spurs midfield and gave time for them to pick passes into the wide open spaces being left along and between a nervous and rigid back-line.
Frustrated fans were angry at a shapeless, heartless, statuesque first half show in which they seemed to have accepted defeat. Boro were slow. At the back. And in the middle. And up front. Ponderous to react in their own box. Glacial going forward.
You have to feel sorry for Alvaro Negredo. He battled like a Trojan but was isolated and lacked support or service from a flaccid and flat-footed three behind him.
There was a moment early in the second half when Negredo, Ramirez and Barragan tried to pick forward manfully while 30 yards behind them a regimented midfield were dug into a tactical trench strung across the pitch with no attempt to get forward to support the attack. No movement at all. They were just waiting for the next wave to come at them. That timid approach sees teams relegated.
But if the first hour was a sobering and frightening experience the last 30 minutes were far more encouraging. If Boro can bring that battle, spirit, pace and willingness to attack into every game then they can flourish in a division where there are plenty of teams down in the lower reaches that have problems and weaknesses of their own.
They need to demand higher pace, tempo and intensity from each other and sustain if for the full 90 minutes and the results will come. We’ve seen it in flashes: 20 minutes here, 20 there. Boro need to keep their focus and fitness and punch for whole games.
And if they show the spirit and attacking intent they did in the last half hour then they will carry the crowd with them. The way the Riverside supporters responded so passionately to the change in the dynamics on the pitch showed that.
The fans were fantastic. They were patient when the pressure was on, righting critical at the break then turned it up to create a sonic boom in the second half. Even Pochetinno was moved to mention in post-match. The crowd started the fightback before the team did.
We will need more of that in the games to come too. October is a massive month with games against West Ham, Watford and Bournemouth looming. Teams that are not ‘out of our league’ but very much our rivals. Huge games. We need the team and crowd united.
And here’s my “you’ve been too harsh”/”you’ve been too soft” player ratings. I know you love them. He may have come off the bench and put in a few wayward balls but I gave Traore a 7 for his dramatic impression on the game. You can see how your favourites/scapegoat elect got on here…