Boro Bottlers Stumped
Today welcomed the return (again) of Aitor Karanka, to some a harshly treated under-appreciated Boro Manager to others one who had simply ran out of ideas and tactical nous to take us any further. Whatever the colour of your views on him he did get us promoted and without that promotion financially we would not be one of the strongest clubs in the Championship which considering where the Club was financially when he first arrived his tenure has to be marked down as a success after being stuck in the second tier for seven years.
His Forest side arrived in a steady run of form, gradually improving as the season has progressed in typical AK style, nothing spectacular, steady, dependable, well organised and disciplined. The word from the Trent was that AK no longer tries to win 0-0 and endeavours nowadays to have some attacking intent rather than relying on binary results in his favour.
The big Boro selection question was if Clayts would come back into the side after serving his one match suspension or would TP stick with the same midfield from Tuesday night. Considering the two Boro goals came from midfielders it would be interesting to see if our player of the season to date would be benched. AK had doubts over Joe Lolley and had slim hopes for Striker Hillal Soudani. Winger Diogo Goncalves was definitely missing serving the last of a three game ban.
The stats showed that Forest were without an away win in their last eleven league games so a Typical Boro occasion for the return of Aitor had crossed minds pre Kick Off. The anticipated main threat for Boro would be Lewis Grabban who is a top Striker at this level and a handful for any defender to keep quiet. The teams when officially announced had a few surprises, Lolley was deemed fit which was to be bad news for Ryan Shotton and Grabban was benched in favour of Daryl Murphy who presumably was selected as being deemed more suited to counter Boro’s back line of giants especially when getting back defending set pieces. For Boro TP went with the same side that destroyed one of the Championship’s worst teams for 20 minutes on Tuesday night and then sat back and clung on for the last 70 minutes. I wasn’t comfortable at Clayton being excluded but my anxieties before the start were soon to be multiplied a thousand fold soon after.
Boro kicked off which was about the most possession they had for the opening twenty minutes. Actually after two minutes it was clear that AK has had a born again renaissance and played cavalier swashbuckling, aggressive attacking football with tempo. Who would have thought it possible? Perhaps he has reflected on his time here and also witnessed the fall from grace of his former mentor. As his Forest side got going quickly Boro were being ripped apart down the flanks. Friend was left exposed and destroyed by being left in a 2v1 scenario repeatedly while Braithwaite seemingly felt his role was to be that of a mere spectator for the opening thirty minutes leaving George to get on with it on his own.
As embarrassing as it was to see George tortured he was doing pretty well compared to his opposite compatriot who started half asleep and then spent the rest of the game being ripped apart in a woeful performance that left us exposed defensively every time Lolley went on a run. Shotton quite simply had no answer to him and was routinely skinned all afternoon consequently left chasing shadows and usually five yards behind them at that.
Centrally Ayala looked a bit nervy alongside Flint and no wonder as their one man defensive shield was sat on the bench. I didn’t think George Saville was worth one million let alone eight at the time of his arrival but if his performance today is anything to go by I hope his “loan” is of the Sean St Ledger variety. Maybe playing in front of the centre backs isn’t his game but if it isn’t it was astonishing that TP didn’t see how outplayed, outclassed and totally lost he was. “Astonishing” may be too strong a word under normal circumstances but five minutes into the game it was clear that the team selection and tactics were wrong and not by just a little bit.
Besic seemingly thought that his Ipswich goal meant that he now had a free pass to stroll through the game. Braithwaite was wasted and lost at out wide left, Howson seemed to pop up in desperate situations trying to save blushes but overall our midfield was a dysfunctional, out-battled and confused mess.
Our RB and LB were having a torrid time and up front Hugill may be a footballer but based on today it was hard to tell as he was diving before the ball was even being played up to him. Football is a difficult enough game but trying to play it sprawled on the floor or sat on your backside must make it far more difficult than is normally required. Like Saville I hope his tenure has the contractual detail of the Sean St. Ledger variety.
That leaves us with two players, Downing and Randolph. Randolph wasn’t to blame for his defenders and midfielders looking like Virgins at one of Caligula’s New Year’s Eve parties so I am happy to absolve him of what unfolded before him. Downing was immense, another nine Stewart Downing’s and we might have nicked a draw but despite his solitary efforts he couldn’t play eleven opponents on his own.
On thirty minutes something bizarre happened, someone must have had a remote “on switch” for Martin Braithwaite as he suddenly awoke from his previous comatose state and started playing, dancing in and out of the Forest defence, rattling them and even having a shot deflected off the cross bar. Hallelujah, finally it looked like we could maybe, just maybe might make a game of it after all. Earlier in the day Leeds had managed a late goal to grab a draw against Brentford which presented Boro with the opportunity to top the Championship tonight and over the International break. That pressure was clearly too much for the playing staff and the Manager as they completely bottled it and were fortunate to reach half time at 0-0.
Phew! Was the general feeling as the half time whistle thankfully went with another poor Refereeing display only topped by an atrocious tactical car crash by TP. No doubt he will bemoan the Officials again but it was he who selected the same side as against Ipswich requiring them to play two games in five days which must have been exhausting for them or it certainly looked like it. There was no way he could send his charges back out organised in the same manner and with the same personnel.
The first half was the worst ever witnessed under his tenure and surely he could see and accept that he screwed it up and got the entire thing wrong. Nope! Out came the same eleven at the start of the second half, the varied utterances of disbelief around me in the North Stand are not suitable to be put into print but they were more colourful and passionate than that which we witnessed in the opening 45 minutes from those in Red Shirts.
Forest kicked off and it was a case of as you were. We were struggling, our defence was under pressure exposed without the protection of Clayts and the inevitable happened when the cumbersome but effective Murphy fed Lolley who launched a cracking volley that sailed across the Riverside in almost dramatic slow motion and nestled beautifully in Randolph’s top corner. Sometimes as sickening as it is you just have to sit back and appreciate an artist at work. It was almost Adam Reach good that’s how good it was, Ronaldo himself would have been proud of it, almost Beckhamesque in fact! It was a fitting goal to be the first scored by an away side this season.
0-1 and TP would now have to respond to belatedly repair his defensive frailties and midfield morass and the perennially prostrate Hugill. It took another ten minutes after the goal for Pulis to react, why it took ten minutes I have no idea because it was blatantly obvious after the opening ten minutes of the first half that changes and drastic ones at that needed to be made. At this point in time Downing was still magnificent as he had been all afternoon but Brathwaite was now supporting, asking questions, looking lively and the one most obvious to tip things back in our favour. Besic seemed a little livelier but Saville was still poor and that is being polite, “off the boil” or “the game passed him by” are other tactful euphemisms for the Northern Irishman’s struggles.
With thirty minutes remaining TP made what was possibly the most disconcerting, baffling, confusing and dysfunctional substitutions all at one time I have witnessed by a Boro Manager in a long time and I include Trashcan in that. Braithwaite went off with a chorus of boos directed at the decision to be replaced by Gestede. At that time apart from Downing the Dane was the only other player actually playing and not panicking and actually looked like he just might unlock the Forest defence who had lost Dawson through injury in the first half after an ankle injury and Friend running through him like a quarterback a short while later.
Just as a reincarnation of one of Redcar Beach’s finest rides had ran onto the pitch we lost another as Hugill managed to stay on his feet long enough to coordinate his lower limbs far longer than he had manged all afternoon to depart the pitch. In what seemed more like a desperate “old player” haunting his ex-employers wish than a cleverly thought through tactical piece of ingenuity on TP’s part Assombalonga entered the fray as the West Ham loanee’s replacement. Besic was the final part of the tripe sorry triple TP conundrum being replaced by the greatly missed Clayton. How Saville remained on the pitch was a mystery wrapped up within in that very conundrum.
Balls were launched up field but invariably more at Britt than Rudy (scratches head) which came to nothing but when the balls were in the general area of Gestede it either bounced off his head in an untoward direction or he managed to foul his opponent in an ungainly manner conceding a free kick in the process. Britt was put through by Howson in a well worked move setting him up only to hit a low shot from ten yards out too close to Pantilimon who dived and collected all too easily. Minutes later Britt had another great chance as he managed to direct a header wide of the goal from a few yards out. We did hope that if another three clear chances came his way he may actually get close to troubling the giant keeper but it wasn’t to be.
Meanwhile before all that Boro excitement Lolley nearly added a second which was blocked by Randolph with Murphy charging in to try and seal the deal for Forest. Karanka then sent on Grabban to give the ageing Striker a deserved break and the tortured minds of the Boro defence another nightmare scenario to deal with. Aden Flint was playing up front more than in defence as the ploy to send Gestede on to win high balls just wasn’t working despite his enthusiastic jumping. It’s a shame that we had to rely on that tactic considering that any players who could create something had now either been subbed or worse, deemed not required for the bench thanks to all these shiny new TP recruits.
Five minutes from coming on Grabban had grabbed his goal after a ball played across the Boro box was tapped in by the clinical striker. The build up to the goal is best glossed over but suffice to say Saville was involved and not in a good way. We did have a similar and probably easier opportunity minutes earlier but the reactions of our fresh shiny new Strike force were somewhat delayed (read non-existent). Fears of being reported to the RSPCA by the stewards for abuse of Muffin (those under sixty may struggle with that one) curtailed responses in the North Stand!
To rub salt in the wound Forest even gifted us the chance to redeem something in the final few moments by going down to ten men as Robinson received his marching orders for a second yellow in trying to emulate Jordan Hugill but he just hasn’t mastered the artistic, twist, turn, grimace, angst and look of arm spread unfairness as he spread-eagled himself. Near the end we did have a series of headers in the Forest box that reminded me of beach holidays in speedos on the Costa’s from a few decades back but there was far more competitiveness in those drunken head tennis games from memory. Gestede did actually score but he was adjudged to have fouled Pantilimon. I’m not so sure that he did but the Ref probably figured if he managed to get the ball into the net it must have been through foul play and erred on the side of probability. It made little difference anyway and was far more than we deserved as if ever there was a game where Boro were lucky to get zero it was this one.
A crescendo of boos greeted the final whistle which in my opinion was far too complimentary. MOM was Downing whose nearest competitor was a young lass who served me in the concourse who without a single days training at Rockliffe was managing to serve burgers, pints and operate a till simultaneously. Today wasn’t just a bad day at the office, to say that would be to sweep evidence under the carpet. Signs were there at Ipswich despite the scoreline on the night that we can’t dominate and impose ourselves on teams. The eulogy of Wing and Tavernier just grew by several volumes today (and I haven’t commented on the heated “Bamford out and Hugill in” debate a few rows behind me that was in overdrive mode in the dying minutes). There was an unhealthy series of mumbled agreements of a Manager desperately justifying his own buys on the walk back down the Riverside Road. Something has changed recently and not for the better, what that something is will be up to TP to identify or perhaps admit to.