A Team Shaped In Mogga's Image Is Finally Starting To Emerge
OUT OF the mists of misfiring mediocrity that shrouded the Riverside last term, the shape of a new look Boro side is starting to emerge.
Two wins in a week have seen a bundles of positives heave into view as we get the first glimpse of a team shaped in Tony Mowbray's image.
Last season's stuttering and frustrating home form was the stumbling block that cost Boro a place in the play-offs - and possibly, at a push, beyond that - and it also undermined the fragile confidence of a jittery crowd that only saw them on home turf when they were so often routinely shackled.
Tony Mowbray's unbalanced inherited team had the skill set to hit on the break away and had a superb record on the road. Awayday stats were of the order that would normally secure promotion.
Yet the crucial lack of a bit of lock-picking creativity, a bit of nous and a cutting edge showed on Teesside when well drilled but limited sides regularly came to the Riverside, set out with two rigid banks of four and shut up shop.
They lacked the pace and width to get behind teams who dug in deep and lacked the ingenuity to cut them open with a killer ball.
Usually the visitors got a point and sometimes three and while Boro's record at home wasn't woeful - they only lost five all term and not at all until November to West Ham, and that their first defeat in 19 - they drew far too many games and the leaden scripted predictability of proceedings sapping the spirit of supporters and drained the momentum of the early promotion surge.
But Mowbray - more aware of the pressing problem than anyone - has spent the summer engineering a radical structural change in his squad in a bid to build a team that more accurately reflects his football philosophy.
Ten new signings and the promotion of a raft of talented teenagers to the first team squad have given Boro a new look: faster, sharper, more hungry and with a flash of teeth but still committed to and capable of playing a patient passing game on the deck and using space and width.
From day one Mowbray has talked of his ambition to play like Barcelona and at times that has seemed far-fetched.
But while we may not have arrived at a birth of a Teesside tiki-taka, the last two home games have at least seen the faint outline of an eye-catching and exciting style start to loom into view.
Two home games in a row have served up some polished and pulsating football that has encouraged and entertained. What more can you ask for as a supporter than to go home buzzing from the result and from the performance?
In the space of a few days we have seen two wins and five goals - a quarter of last season's tally for both. Boro won eight games and scored just 22 goals in 23 laboured games. We have already seen more memorable net-busters so far at home this term than in the whole of a largely anonymous previous campaign.
The midweek clash with Burnley served up three cracking goals. Or one very good one and two mouth-watering strikes to liven up what was for long spells a scrappy and tense Championship slugfest.
But, perhaps more importantly, we have also seen some genuine signs of a new progressive approach evolving. Passing; probing; crisp interchanging; neat interchanging; width; pace; tempo; sustained pressure; shots flying in from all angles... it has been a pleasure to watch.
Against Crystal Palace, for an hour we got a glimpse of the side Mowbray is building.
The exhilarating first half display was as good a 45 minute spell as I can remember at the Riverside for many a year. There was some exquisite high-tempo passing, fluid movement on and off the ball and enterprising attacking football utilising both flanks.
Both full-backs pushed forward quickly and confidently to add real width and numbers to the attack and while last year the progress would have halted 30 yards out, the new assertive outfit repeatedly broke beyond the defensive trenches to get to the by-line and fire in inviting crosses high and low towards a posse of team-mates making penetrating runs into the box. It was fantastic to watch.
And the shots rained in - especially from instant hero Adam Reach who as he showed against Burnley is not scared to have a crack from anywhere.
Twice the perky pink-booted prodigy sent in stinging rifled drives from distance that were fumbled behind. He has the look of a player who will hit double figures given his head.
There were some excellent individual performances from the new signings.
George Friend had a storming first half in his best game yet. After a jittery start at Bury and Barnsley he has grown into the team and he looked far more solid at the back against Burnley then showed a more attacking bent in the Palace game with a series of penetrating bursts down the left to play telling crosses and neat short balls in. It was his run and cut inside that earned a free-kick for Zemmama to squeezed home the second.
Josh McEachran was again impressive, He had a fantastic debut and showed against Palace it was no fluke as he again linked up well and showed an impressive range of perfectly weighted passes into feet. He gave away the penalty but we'll forgive him that.
It won't go down well with the #haters but Justin Hoyte - a kind of new signing - was superb again. He was solid and determined at the back and put in a masterclass of attacking full-back play, always offering an outlet and putting in some killer crosses.
Of the old boys, Jason Steele was also impeccable and despite being a spectator for almost an hour made two great saves when the pressure was on and deserves some credit too while the central pairing of Seb Hines and Rhys Williams largely did well to cope with the blistering pace of Zaha... although the skipper was at fault as he failed to cut out the ball into the box that led to the spot-kick.
There was a lot of attention on another new boy Ishmael Miller. He had come in for some heavy pre-emptive chuntering from the Chickenrun but he did well. Not brilliant in any game-changing way but he was a handful. Certainly he showed signs of being exactly the kind of physical presence that does damage in this league.
Obviously he lacked match sharpness after a season spent bench-warming and his two best chances in the box went begging as defenders got their tackles in a fraction before he could pull the trigger but he added a robust presence in the box and a few times showed a turn of pace. He will add something to the mix.
Of course, it wasn't all good news. The familiar late jitters and the psychological retreat after Palace clawed one back with a cheaply conceded penalty were a worry. That involuntary shrinking back to the 18 yard line is a dark self-destructive shadow of doubt that needs to be addressed swiftly if the full exciting potential of this season and this team is to be realised.
But this is the Championship. That is what you get. Teams are not ruthless or dominant for the full 90 minutes. Especially at this stage when they are still bedding in.
And ,crucially, this time that germ of fragility wasn't punished. Last term Palace you just know would have got a stoppage time leveller. Or worse. Boro holding on for the win is a major step forward.
So, two home wins in a row and the angst and frustration of the still-born season opener at Barnsley, if not forgotten has been mitigated and put into context. It has been a decent start with goals and performances to encourage.
If this fledgling team continues to make progress and take shape as it has this week then this can be a fantastic season.
Bring it on.