Middlesbrough 1 Watford 2 (12/01/2013) 13/01/2013Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
Five thunks from a hugely impressive three points on the road.
1- We were worried about the potential for snow. We were worried about our limited defensive numbers. We were worried about team selection, no ball winner in midfield. We were worried about Boro’s home form. All misplaced, as it turned out, but be under no illusions. This was far from easy.
Boro bossed the first half, enjoying the lion’s share of possession. With Nick Bailey and George Friend pushing up on the flanks from full-back, our wing-backs were forced into defensive positions limiting our attacking options. However, whilst the accepted précis of the first half is that the home side dominated but were profligate that’s only partly true to my mind. Certainly they had more of the ball, and we were stretched more than once… Joel Ekstrand (twice) and Lloyd Doyley were forced into make or break tackles as Boro’s patient possession yielded openings; Almunia made one very good stop from a deceptive, bouncing Ledesma shot; a moment of hesitation wasted a two-on-two break for the home side. But it’s not as if we stretched and broke. We played patiently too, and were largely able to cope with what the home side threw at us – they didn’t capitalise on their possession, but nor did they create and waste any clear-cut chances.
Boro were asking questions and it wouldn’t have taken too much, admittedly… a slip at the wrong moment, a badly timed challenge. But neither came, for which huge credit needs to go to the back three of Doyley, Nosworthy and Ekstrand which the bench revealed as our only three available defenders … the admirable Cassetti presumably the emergency fall-back option in case of injury. Hall, Neuton, Hoban, Bennett, Thompson, Dickinson all out with various levels of knocks, it speaks volumes that we can accommodate such an injury list and put in such a stout defensive performance against a side who had won 7 in 8 at home. Doyley stuck to McDonald like a limpet, the Australian dropping deep to try to cause trouble in front of their midfield but always with Doyley in close attendance, not allowing him space to turn. Nyron Nosworthy was a bull, negating the anticipated impact of the loss of Fitz Hall and looking surprisingly confident bringing the ball forward. Ekstrand started nervously in the left-sided slot that Tommie Hoban has been filling so admirably but settled, and between them they kept the home side largely at arm’s length as we spent the first half coping, if little more. And the thing is, as long as we’re coping you know that we’re in with a shout…
2- …because a weapon like Matej Vydra is such a potent one, especially away from home. Our first-half openings, such as they were, had often resulted from Vydra dropping deep to receive a through ball from Abdi and on the rarer occasions that we put the Boro backline under pressure their nervousness offered cause for encouragement that hadn’t been afforded the home side at the other end. Williams had already volleyed a vicious Cassetti cross narrowly and slightly unnecessarily over his own bar, whilst Bailey looked uncomfortable when forced to defend at full back, Pudil exploiting bad positioning more than once to get behind the back when he did get forward. So… it’s easy to say “yes, well, Boro gifted us the lead and we just took advantage”. But it was more than that… we’d earned the right to still be in the game, Boro creaked and broke under less pressure than we’d been under and Vydra still had to be at his sharpest to run onto Williams’ careless chest down and half-volley home right on half time. We are such a hard side to play when we’re away from home and our opponents have that responsibility to push forward.
And the second half of course was different onions altogether. Gianfranco Zola expressed greater satisfaction with the display after the break but Tony Mowbray’s candid concession that Boro were forced to “empty the midfield” in search of an equaliser played into our hands and contributed in no small part to our subsequent threat. Rapier counter attacks gave us far more in the way of chances either than the home side fashioned or than we’ d managed in the first half; Vydra and Deeney each had two one-on-ones in addition to those converted, the only disappointment perhaps that we should have extended our lead by more than Vydra’s magnificent finish, past the onrushing and overworked Steele and inside the post.
3- The only concern in a second half in which we were comfortably the better side was that the game was now wide open, play stretched from end to end. This suited the home side rather more than us, however many holes were opening up behind them; there’s a reason that teams tend to try to slow the game down once they’re ahead, particularly away from home. There was little of this here although the excellent Almunia was guilty of taking a little too long over goal kicks at the end of the half… but earlier on, we’d kept the game moving at an insane pace, the keeper looking for the quick roll out to turn the play around whenever he gained possession in active play. Whilst this communicated confidence, giving the home crowd no nervousness to feed off, you do kinda feel that we could have done with slowing it all down a little bit.
The obvious avenue to this, the wise old head required in the middle, was introduced rather later than I’d have hoped at 2-0 for the subdued Chalobah. John Eustace’s omission from the starting eleven was perhaps the biggest surprise in the team selection, Zola opting to give a second start (and ultimately a first full 90) to the 20 year-old Christian Battocchio; the Argentine did well enough, busy and comfortable in possession one sublime through ball split the centre backs and released Vydra for an early second half chance. Eustace’s first contribution when he came on was not to tighten things up, but to charge onto a loose ball on the left and release Vydra for what really should have been his hat-trick. Whatever, it didn’t matter… the bottom line is that if the midfield has been coping well enough without John Eustace for the most part, the team has no substitute for his leadership and experience in the middle of the park.
4- From the back row of the main stand we were able to enjoy a rare ninety minutes on our feet with a panorama of the entire stadium (and the hills and chimneys above the curve of the arena). This also gave us a view of the remarkable exodus on 83 minutes; the 17,500 odd crowd had hardly packed the Riverside as it was, but this – let alone the half-hearted boos that greeted the final whistle – was a remarkable response to a slip from a side with a number of players coming back from injury and a stout home record. Very harsh.
Independently, Boro lost their discipline for the first time in the wake of that second goal and they were there for the taking in the closing minutes. Grant Leadbitter started to snap sulkily into challenges (prompting the comedy highlight of the afternoon, Vydra offering him a hand in passing that he was demonstrably in no mood to shake as the Czech youngster was subbed with minutes to go) whilst McDonald was booked for an equally bad-tempered tackle before spoiling what would have been our first away clean sheet with an otherwise inconsequential goal. Zola’s response post match was effectively a shrug – it doesn’t matter if they score as long as we score more. I remember another manager with a similar attitude…
5- A statement to the rest of the division, finally. Not our best performance of the season, certainly one suspects that the Brighton result might look more imposing from every angle come the final reckoning, but devastatingly effective once again. Definitively it sets us apart from the good-but-inconsistent chasing pack, and guarantees that no match in which an opponent is likely to come on to us will be earmarked as “the most difficult game of the season” from here on in. If we find an equally effective formula at home, the rest of the division is in real trouble.