Friday, 1 February 2013

Penetration's What We Need

As Si's Insights celebrates its NewsNow approval (yes, you can check us out there now too), another barren January, with very few moments of light relief, concludes. Another transfer window closes. And despite what you have to admit has become a typical run of form at this time of year, we find ourselves in the last sixteen of the FA Cup and with the chance to close the gap on second-placed Leicester City to three points.

But the question of what to do about Boro, which I posed when I sat down for a while to gather my thoughts after the Watford defeat, remains no different.

For almost the entire first half of our last home league game, it was like watching... how do I put it? "Borocelona". The foundation of our success this season was there for all to see; a steady, patient, probing passing game that has been, for the most part, extremely effective, and at times a joy to watch.

Problem is, the "patience" in said style of play makes it extremely difficult for us to get back into a game once we go behind. So our second-half self destruction, while painful to witness, wasn't entirely unexpected.

What that game did was expose the limitations of our "dream midfield quartet" of Leadbitter, Haroun, Ledesma and McEachran. Gifted, committed team players they may be, but can any of them genuinely be relied on to "beat their man" on a regular basis? How many players in this squad can genuinely stretch the opposition? How many can actually capitalise on the space down the flanks and provide the kind of service that our strikers have been sorely lacking all season? In other words, service that would raise our goal difference and firmly establish us as automatic promotion contenders, rather than automatic promotion hopefuls?

I never thought I'd be really sad to see Justin Hoyte on the treatment table for an extended period of time, but the very season he becomes the key to our problems, he falls victim to a long-term injury. Ditto Mustapha Carayol. Even George Friend, already a cult hero, is more central than his inferior predecessor Joe Bennett. And while the effectiveness of Adam Reach hasn't gone unnoticed, to pin all our hopes on a still rather raw talent is a little ridiculous. Not to mention a burden for the lad.

McDonald, Miller, Jutkiewicz and especially Emnes have received their fair share of stick this season, some of it more justified than others. But I think that the central cause for our January failure is that even when we were on top of our game, we carved out very few clear cut chances. And this is of no benefit to strikers like McDonald and possibly even Juke, who don't possess extreme pace or technique and depend on being given the right ball in the right place at the right time. It's the epitome of Mogga's playing style, which was also evident while he was at West Brom – feigned penetration without actual penetration, all huff and puff, no end product.

Timing isn't just the solution to the problem. Timing is the problem. The first Watford goal, as we all know, came right at the end of the first half, when Boro had no time to immediately respond. Rolls Rhys was demoralised, we were unexpectedly forced into contemplating a Plan B, and it's just gone from bad to worse since then, with the exception of our late lucky break against Aldershot.

Harsh though it seems to play so well for long periods and come away with nothing to show for it, Penetration > Possession every time. Complaints about the late goals and non-postponement of the Leicester game, justified though they may be, have disguised a multitude of sins that creep into Boro’s present style at the worst of times, such as poor finishing, laziness and bad defending.

But the problem isn't Mogga. He's merely found himself carrying on the symptoms of Boro managers past. In 1996/97, when the opposition realised Juninho was the centre of our attacks, they denied him the room to prosper and put our shaky defence under pressure. The facade was exposed. Even in 1997/98, we suffered a double slump at the turn of the New Year, picking up just one point from six in January and one away point from fifteen in March and April. Had Sunderland not choked against Ipswich, the season would have ended very differently. In 1998/99, once opposition sides cut off the Dean Gordon supply line, we entered an alarming slump in form and only bounced back when Hamilton Ricard found his touch in front of goal again. And so on, and so on.

In other words, every team has flaws, and when we see them, they're very revealing about the management of the side. You just don't notice it when everything works.

The problem isn't necessarily that we're not good enough, but that we're repeating the same mistakes over and over again, hoping that our methods will "work" long enough to conceal things. You can only "get away with it" for so long before things catch up with you. Being dedicated is one thing; being penetrative is another.

Maybe Kieron Dyer might be the man to provide the penetration we need? Against his old club, no less?

* * * * *

As a postscript: I got some stick on Twitter last night for attempting to apply a fair and balanced view of Kevin Thomson's Boro career. I'm not denying that the money we are saving from no longer having to pay his wages is a good thing, but at the same time, I do regret that one of Strachan’s "marquee" signings, who could have become a key player under Mogga (he was, after all, Mogga's chosen captain at Hibs) never got the chance to truly establish himself in the manner Bailey, McDonald and to a lesser extent McManus did. It's impossible for me not to imagine what might have been but for all those injuries.

In short, feel a little regret that it didn't work out for him, but feel happy that both him and we can move on.

Goodbye and good luck, Thommo.

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