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Middlesbrough 1 Watford 2 (12/01/2013) 13/01/2013

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
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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.

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Comments»

1. Roger Smith - 13/01/2013

Thanks, Matt, for 5 insightful comments to add to those you made on 3CR.

It’s not only the team that win matches; it’s also the manager. And on that showing, one must give huge credit to Gianfranco for out-thinking one of the smartest managers in the division.

Although we have five regular central defenders – seven if you count Doyley and Cassetti – that’s not a lot when we play three in the side. Can we afford Bennet on loan? He was brilliant covering for De Merit, not least in the final, crucial game when De Merit was again available for selection.

As you say, a statement of intent to the rest of the division. COYH!

Matt Rowson - 13/01/2013

Thanks Roger. I think Bennett’s injured anyway… he went to Yeovil but then returned with a back problem.

2. Matt - 13/01/2013

Great win yesterday. Just wondering – radio pundits aside – can I lay claim to being the only one of the 305 who wasn’t at Man City? there can’t have been many.

The Boro game was another stage in the Hornet indoctrination of my 5 year old son – now 2 out of 2 wins this season. Nothing gave me greater pleasure than hearing him run round the park in York this afternoon in his Watford hat and scarf singing (to the complete bemusement of others) “He’s only 5 foot 3, he comes from Italy….”. Almost enjoyed that more than the win.

Interested at your comments on Batocchio. The guy has great touch and vision but I would almost see him as an alternative to Chalobah rather than playing alongside him – with that selection we risk a lack of ball winners against a brawnier side than that. But wouldn’t be afraid to see him starting again. I don’t think you were alone in screaming for Eustace for a while before he actually appeared.

And

3. Nick - 14/01/2013

For all the possession boro had we showed real quality when we had the ball. I also wonder whether boro would have had such an easy time of it on the ball if we had someone in midfield willing to do the dirty work and make it difficult.

Doyley showed once again that he is one of the best defenders in the side. I wonder if he is more of an asset against the better teams where his ability to defend is more important than his ability with the ball.

Chalobah whilst being phenomenally gifted goes through spells of looking a touch lazy and slow on the ball (I’m sure to his age), I think perhaps he needs a game or two on the bench.

SteveG - 15/01/2013

Can’t comment on the Boro game, but I thought that Chalobah looked very classy at the Etihad the week before. But it’s a team game, and I can’t help wondering if the freedom of expression that he enjoyed was at least in part down to the knowledge that there was the solidity of Eustace behind him to tidy up – he’s been unfairly maligned on other, less thoughtful sites, I feel. Either Eustace or Hogg (but almost certainly not both) alongside two of our more creative players in central midfield gives a good balance. But isn’t it a great feeling to have some of that choice available…

4. Nicholas - 14/01/2013

I also couldn’t get to City but travelled to Boro with the the thought that a hard earned draw would be a good result. Chalobah had one of his more over relaxed days losing the ball a bit too often and it was good to see Almunia gently reminding him to keep it simple at one stage . I was wanting Deeney to be subbed as I felt he was struggling to keep hold of the ball . After the game talking to my brother who is Boro season ticket holder he was very impressed with Deeney’s work rate and skill and reckoned Vydra is premier league.He was impressed on how all the players even the subs had a clear notion of the system and slotted in perfectly something Boro struggle with apparently . He was also muttering about fans round him who moan when the ball is played quick and long, moan when possession football is played and then give up and go home when their team isn’t in the lead. Not a lot of difference from where I sit in the UR then.
Anyone else who saw the TV highlights wondered what the little girl mascot holding Deeney’s hand said to him when he touched the grass and crossed himself ?

5. David Hart - 14/01/2013

I wasn’t at Man City as I was working…nor was my son…so that makes at least 3 of us! Great summary of the match Matt as ever.

Andrew - 14/01/2013

+ your son makes 4, I guess, second Matt – unless you sent him to Eastlands on his own as another part of his indoctrination! Great stuff all round and thanks as ever to first Matt for the thunks.

6. Marcus Shapiro - 14/01/2013

Thompson isn’t out with some form of knock. He is playing for Barnet.

Matt Rowson - 14/01/2013

Nope. Bust his shoulder, back at the Vic.

Marcus Shapiro - 14/01/2013

Matt – you are quite right and have just read the report in the WO

7. Nige in Oz - 14/01/2013

This was shown live Down Under and Matt summed the game up perfectly. I did think that in the first half we gave the ball away for too cheaply and far too often, but that was partly due to the pressure Boro put us under, however once the game opened up 2nd half we looked dominant and really should have won by 3 or 4 based on the clear cut chances we created.

8. AndyD73 - 14/01/2013

Matt, thanks for more excellent thunks and 3CR punditry.

Agreed, we are most effective with opponents coming on to us, and can struggle to unpick teams defending in numbers. But the natural advantage playing away brings, seems to be reinforced by a more defiant will to prevail, on the road. Contrast the (9-)10-man away performances at Charlton and Cardiff with the home game v Boro, and the fact we have gone behind at home six times this season and ended up losing all six.

Perhaps because of our success playing counter, at the Vic we can become passive and gift the initiative (and belief) to the opposition. While we have been irresistible for spells on several occasions, I think at home we should be utilising our plentiful resources to go for a more high-tempo attacking game. Even doing this concertedly for the first half-hour would probably have many teams as good as killed-off by half-time.

Matt Rowson - 14/01/2013

Wouldn’t say “passive”. There’s a tendency for teams to sit back at the Vic and deny us space to play into – the more so once we’ve already gone behind. I’m sure that’s why we see the guile of Forestieri at home more than the raw pace of Vydra. As for high tempo… well the Boro game at home which you refer to opened with us flying at them for half an hour. Then we fizzled out a bit and Boro were level before the Vydra sending off. Nor was that the only game that opened with us penning the opposition back for half an hour or so… problem is, when you don’t capitalise in that period you hand the initiative to the opposition.

9. AndyD73 - 14/01/2013

We did eventually fizzle out that day but were very unlucky not to be 2 or 3 up by then. The home games this season where we’ve looked urgent from the off and sustained our attacking intent, we have won almost all.
Sometimes the opposition will be too good on the day (Hull) or play a great defensive game (Millwall), but what we can’t do is fail to attempt to dominate weaker opposition (Charlton, Bristol C, Posh) for long periods of the game.
I guess that’s what i meant by being “passive”.

Ralph Jackson - 16/01/2013

Perhaps it’s partly a matter of those little periods when we started opting for a few too many backwards or sideways passes when a forward one is on. That little quibble apart,Gianfranco and team please carry on doing what you’re doing!


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