The Tigers headed for Middlesbrough for another relegation six pointer, hoping to perform much better than they had in the four recent outings with our fellow strugglers. Unfortunately, a good performance was not forthcoming as defensive lapses compounded a poor all round effort to leave City in serious danger of making a quick return to the Championship.
Phil Brown named the same eleven that ground out a bore draw with Pompey last week. One look at the sub's bench showed the lack of any real alternative. There was some talent on show but in a team devoid of any belief at all at the moment. A good start was vital and conceding inside 3 minutes does not constitute a good start. Middlesbrough broke quickly and took advantage of a very high defensive line as King slid in Alves and he raced towards goal, unchallenged. Duke stood up tall and Alves, as usual, shot poorly but Duke could only push the ball out to Tuncay, who slid the ball home. Despite never really finding any pattern to our play, we equalised within ten minutes. Geovanni, showing for the first time in the game, cut inside and forced a corner which he then over-hit. Nick Barmby worked hard to get to the ball and returned a brilliant cross into the box for Manucho to thump a header beyond Jones. The goal should've lifted City and damaged Middlesbrough's fragile confidence but our ineptitude meant we never really troubled them thereafter. Despite playing almost a 4-2-4 formation, they dominated midfield, as Ashbee was easily overrun; Geovanni anonymous and Barmby unable to match them for legs, despite his bloody minded determination. Our defensive line was high, obviously hoping to close the gap between defence and attack that was so massive last week but we still ended up with either Ashbee or Manucho being isolated, depending on the position of the other midfielders.
The game swung their way again with a disastrous goal, a gift for the home side. Ashbee attempted to dribble the ball out of trouble on our left and the linesman flagged for a corner kick, despite the fact that the ball never appeared to cross the line. The corner was delivered low into the six yard box where Bates ran across everyone, unmarked, and poked a volley beyond Duke. Poor decision or not, the defending was abysmal. Boro had other chances, the best of which fell to Wheater, who headed over the bar as Duke flailed at a cross. At the other end, Mendy caused Jones to race from his goal and just beat the Frenchman to a through ball. The hosts held their lead until the interval without any trouble at all. Poor decision making was again at the heart of City's troubles, particularly poor passing choices. We were hitting the ball forward to a front man who cannot hold the ball up and does not win headers and we didn't have enough imagination coming from midfield.
I'd love to report on a second half that consisted of City laying siege to the Boro goal and being denied by a string of fine saves but that would be a big fat lie. We continued to look pedestrian in possession and ran out of ideas fairly quickly. We shuffled the pack a little with the introduction of Folan and Marney and moved Fagan and Geovanni around a little but never produced any sustained pressure at all, not even for a couple of minutes. We were lucky that they where wasteful with some of the breaks they made, otherwise we wouldn't have had anything to chase late on. Not that we looked like chasing. A fine cross from Ricketts was sent goalwards by a combination of Manucho's head and Jones' hand before being headed clear by Wheater. That was about our only effort of the half. George Boateng made a difference from the bench, providing a little energy in the middle and a calm head to pick out a few passes. He looked a class above everyone on the pitch for 15 minutes after his introduction, changed our tempo and gave us a bit of life when we had none. So it was unfortunate that he gift wrapped the game for Boro as we entered stoppage time. A City set piece was cleared towards our goal, where George picked up possession. He decided not to play a simple back pass to Duke (and who could blame him?), turned their forward and then rather than whack the ball clear with his left foot, turned back into the front player and fell over. He managed to hack the player down to keep him from scoring but Marlon King followed up to slot the ball home. Probably for the best because otherwise, Boateng would have been sent off. It was a rotten goal to concede that summed up a rotten afternoon. When we were screaming out for a front player who could play with his back to goal, it was scored by the one we gave away. That hurt too.
Duke had a nightmare. He came to punch twice and got nothing but that was nothing compared to his distribution. He sliced two back passes into touch, hit another low and hard into midfield and he also booted a goal kick straight into touch. His short game was even worse, throwing across our box twice, missing City players both times and trying a short pass to Dawson that rolled into touch. Defensively, we gave away silly goals and also conceded a lot of free-kick's and even more possession. Turner and Zayatte were OK individually but showed no cohesion as a pair. Ricketts nullified Downing pretty well and got forward at times. Dawson didn't look confident at left back and failed to get beyond Fagan at all. Distribution was aimless from all four. Short passing was almost none existent and anything sent long was met by a Boro head.
The midfield didn't work out again, despite looking fine on paper. Ashbee looked far more isolated than last week in the first half and too often Boro found time and space in the middle. It was crying out for someone to go in alongside him at half time and worryingly, it only happened because Mendy was injured. It wasn't so bad last week when Pompey only had one forward but Boro played with four at times today and we didn't get anywhere near them. Geo had one or two little moments but on the whole, he wasn't in the game. Barmby worked his socks off again, showed some quality on the ball and showed a desire to win the ball and put pressure on the opposition that should make some of the others hang their head in shame. Mendy started brightly and looked in the mood to trouble them until he was injured in the clash with Jones. Fagan put in a lot of work again but most of it is wasted effort. He doesn't close them down in the right areas, doesn't anticipate runs in behind him and doesn't find a mate enough with possession. As a result, he works hard and chases and harasses but to no effect. He needs to play through the middle, he's been much more effective up front this season and is the only front player we have who'll cause defenders trouble off the ball and defend from the front. Marney wandered around aimlessly for the most part, nearly got himself onto a cross from Ricketts at the back post and over-hit two corners.
Manucho scored a terrific goal and nearly forced a second. It's typical of the way we're playing at the moment though that we had a guy in there that was always going to be a danger and we failed to find another decent cross all afternoon. Instead, he had to play with his back to goal jumping at hopeful long balls and it isn't his game at all. He's not strong enough, he hasn't got a first touch and he isn't adept at winning headers. Earlier in the season we were playing to our strengths, getting the ball into good wide areas for King and Cousin to latch onto and playing off them. Today, we were a long ball team and they weren't even good long balls. The number of balls we hit straight down the middle for Jones to pick up easily was ridiculous, Zayatte being the biggest culprit. Folan wasn't bad when he came on but he isn't going to worry anyone. Especially not with worse service than you'd get in McDonalds.
For the first time, I think we might go down. We look frightened. We're not resilient, we're not hard to play against and we're easy to deal with as an attacking force. Earlier in the season, we had 8 or 9 good performers in the average game, now we have 2 or 3 max. We're running out of formations at the moment. We don't have good enough front players and we're shuffling things around with increasing desperation to compensate for that. When we go to Sunderland next week, we have yet another chance to put a rival in trouble and lift ourselves. We must be better than today; that goes without saying. We must have someone in the midfield with Ashbee and we cannot play Manucho on his own again. Against Fulham and Newcastle, we found a way to get Geovanni into the game from the left and we've abandoned that for some reason. I'd bring Myhill back in goal and Kilbane in at left back for his experience. Put Geo back on the left, Mendy on the right and Ashbee and Boateng in the middle. Play either Fagan and Barmby or Fagan and Manucho down the middle. We also need Garcia back involved because without him, we have no option at all from the bench. The manager needs to keep things simple for the next few games, put out a rigid eleven, sit two defensive midfielders in, defend from the front and include players like Fagan, Mendy and Geovanni who can cause trouble on the break. Leave the overcomplicated systems for next season and let's get through this one.
The players need to realise the opportunity they still have. Despite winning only two games in nearly 5 months, despite chucking away opportunity after opportunity and despite yet another wretched outing, it's still well in our own hands. Grasp the opportunity, it may not come again.
Ratings: Duke 5, Ricketts 7, Dawson 6, Turner 7, Zayatte 6, Mendy 6 (Marney), Fagan 6 (Boateng), Geovanni 6, Barmby 8 (Folan), Ashbee 7, Manucho 6.