Swan break evens
Today saw some more familiar old faces returning in the form of Conor Roberts and Kyle Naughton as Graham Potter brought his injury ravaged reality checked Swans up to the Riverside for this afternoon’s game. As is often the case a confidence busting Premiership season can be followed up by a sensory shock in the Championship. As we know only too well psychologically, bouncing back isn’t always easy for a club who have spent the previous season being constantly battered. In mitigation to the new Swans boss his squad of players presently wouldn’t look out of place at the accident and emergency department at James Cook on a Friday night.
Potter was expected to have to continue patching up as his depleted charges are likely to be without Jefferson Montero, Bersant Celina, Luciano Narsingh, and Leroy Fer. Striker Courtney Baker-Richardson was serving the last of a three game suspension today after being sent off just five minutes into his appearance at Millwall for a “reckless” challenge. Star Striker Wilfred Bony has been out long term with a serious injury suffered last February.
On a positive for Potter, Nathan Dyer and Wayne Routledge both returned from layoffs in their defeat at Stoke in midweek where he had made seven changes while Tom Carroll and Jay Fulton were also reported to be close to being back in contention. Oli McBurnie was expected to be named despite reportedly playing with a cracked bone in his foot and a knee problem. His seeming disregard for the health and safety of his shins certainly won’t calm any anxieties amongst the South Wales medical team. With such upheaval plus a relegation hangover it’s little wonder that the Swans haven’t been among the front runners so far although they do possess the Championship’s third best defence after Boro and Leeds so a free scoring game was unlikely.
Boro on the other hand had a clean bill of health apart from Howson who was struggling by the end of Wednesday, even long term absentee Rudy Gestede is now back in contention. That old “Crockliffe” tag is now becoming a distant memory. Unbeaten at home this season with a 100% Riverside record the big challenge today for Tony Pulis was to refine and improve on our effectiveness and efficiency in the final third of the pitch. The key selection dilemma for him was in midfield and up front. Britt burst his way back with a goal on Wednesday and with Hugill not exactly doing anything spectacular to keep a starting role it would be interesting to see who started. The only likely definite at that end of the pitch would likely be the creative Braithwaite whilst Besic, Saville, Downing and Howson if fit would all be fighting for the remaining shirts with McNair and Leadbitter waiting in the wings with Lewis.
The last time Boro lost at home to Swansea was in 2011 after being 3-1 up and incredibly losing to Brendan Rogers’s side 4-3. TP’s Boro haven’t conceded three goals all season so it was unlikely that this afternoon would repeat anything remotely approaching that score line. The team he placed his trust in today saw one change from Tuesday with Britt back in for Hugill whilst Potter made three changes with Rodon. McKay and Burnie all recalled.
Swansea took the field in bright sunshine and remarkably were actually playing in the white kit which we associate with them instead of some absurd mixed day-glow palette from a Dulux colour chart. They got the game under way and almost immediately it was clear they were going to play football with crisp sweet interplay and fast movements off the ball dragging Boro’s midfield and defence with them as they went. Strangely Downing was playing on the right and we had set up with a back four. Braithwaite was on the Left with Howson in the middle and Clayts protecting the back four. After five minutes or so it became very clear that Swansea’s game plan was far more effective than the logic behind TP’s. The opening quarter of an hour was very edgy with Boro having very little possession and indeed looking very much second best. Despite the Swans impressive possession stats they couldn’t break through the wall of Red shirts and a stand-off ensued with Boro sneaking opportunity on the break and it was one such break that had Downing crack a good shot on target that forced a save from Mulder on ten minutes.
Swansea responded with McBurnie heading straight at Randolph a few minutes later but the turning point in terms of the first half came when Olsson sneaked past Downing at the post forcing Randolph into a reaction save. That passage of play seemed to have made up TP’s mind that something needed to be changed. Downing was switched over to the left and Braithwaite looked to be pushed up to support Britt and seemed to have a freer role and almost immediately it nearly paid off as a sweet back heel from Britt teed up Saville who hit a cracker which unfortunately glanced off the top of the Swansea Crossbar. Boro were now in the ascendency as the switch-around destabilised Swansea momentum with both Ayala and Assombalonga coming close for the resurgent Reds.
The next talking point involved Saville again, this time he went down in the box with shouts from the South Stand for a penalty that were waved away from Simon Hooper who seemed up until that point to have a slight bias against the home side with the Riverside experiencing another eccentric display from the Officials. In fairness the challenge did look fairly innocuous from the North Stand so he may have called it correct but at this stage he had already firmly established that he was going to be an irritating annoyance all afternoon for the Boro as Saville entered his book. Boro continued their run of pressure and looked to be good value for their endeavours against a side that was without doubt the best opponents to visit the Riverside this season made all the better for actually attempting to play football.
The main talking point of the first half was the Ref who not only gave 50/50’s in favour to the Swans but also 60/40’s and 70/30’s come to that. When the half time whistle sounded the home support saved their frustrations for when the gentleman with the whistle was approaching the Tunnel to be met with a cacophony of boos, jeers and whistles all blocked out by a disconnected announcer who couldn’t wait to maximise his 15 minutes of control by announcing scores elsewhere over the sound of the crowd. Maybe it was an attempt to be neutral and fair play and all that but it annoyed the heck out of me as the Officials had had a real stinker and deserved to hear the opinions of 21,000 or so disgruntled spectators as they endeavoured to provide their side with the benefit of home advantage and sowing seeds of doubt. It appears that MMP either doesn’t watch the game or understand it as his intervention was ill timed and in stark conflict to the emotions of the supporters.
The second half saw a switch for Swansea as Carroll came on for Byers with TP sticking with the same eleven. The half saw Swansea get more of a foothold once more as Boro seemed a little more cautionary in their approach and build up play. Shotton had been the player most likely to offer something for Boro and he sent in a good cross to Britt which teased the frustrated striker as he just couldn’t connect and nor could Braithwaite following in behind. On sixty minutes Besic came on for Saville who had come the closest in terms of either scoring or winning an advantage. The Northern Irish International had been much more influential than on Tuesday and looks to be settling in and finding his feet nicely. Braithwaite had also been alert and willing to take the game to Swansea with a series of dribbles and drives all throughout the game. The arrival of Besic hopefully would have added another dimension but it seemed to slow things down and put us on the back foot as he dithered too long on the ball and attracted close attention but failed to release it quickly enough. Full marks for his endeavour but his effectiveness was questionable. As soon as Besic came on Routledge was hooked by Potter bringing on James.
The game had now entered a staid spell with neither side looking remotely close to scoring summed up by Besic hitting a ball that ended up in the North Stand upper. The inevitable Hugill for Assombalonga swap came with twenty minutes remaining as the fourth official managed to mix up Howson’s number for Britt’s to cause some consternation and confusion that was eventually corrected much to Britt’s disappointment but he had looked to be flagging and becoming increasingly ineffective at that point. Clayts managed to get himself booked yet again for a sliding challenge which upended his opponent and in the process collected Boro’s second yellow of the game and his fourth of the season as the two sides simply continued to nullify and frustrate one another.
As on Tuesday night Downing then made way for McQueen as the Southampton loanee took up his slot in front of Friend. I’m not sure if the logic was to tighten up or to add an injection of pace on the left, the lad added graft and willing but there was nothing that was going to tip the balance or change the outcome of the game. I pondered at that point why Tav or Chapman were not on the bench as in games like this an alternate option was required that may just stretch the opponents with a different conundrum instead of the same old same old. The true cost of failure to land pace in the transfer window was highlighted this afternoon.
With the minutes ticking down Boro applied some last intent urged on by the fans and TP but apart from an overstretched Flint header from a McQueen cross there wasn’t really anything to cheer or get excited about. After an entire afternoon of time-wasting by the Swans keeper Mulder which was disregarded by the Ref there were only four minutes of added time during which Hugill after bustling and barging since coming on got himself booked in the last minute for a forearm smash poorly disguised as an Alan Shearer type outstretched arm for elevation. It was probably the only decision that Hooper got correct when he produced Boro’s third yellow card and the game ended on that note.
Apart from a cross come shot that hit Randolph’s crossbar in the second half and the Olsson effort Swansea showed why they haven’t scored many this season, in fact both sides showed their inability in the final third allied to their credible defensive statistics and so 0-0 probably wasn’t such a huge surprise. Considering the amount of first-teamers out of action I think Swansea will progress this season and looking back this may be seen as a point gained rather than two dropped.
MOM was again the usual contenders, Clayts was simply Clayts, Braithwaite gave reason for optimism and Howson was involved all game but Shotton just edged it with his defending and tireless running.