Teesside Steel Forges Win At Wigan
TEESSIDE steel! That was the key as industrious Boro forged a first away win of the year and a first clean sheet this term. It was far from pretty but after weeks of aesthetically pleasing but frustratingly fruitless football - and relentlessly mounting political pressure - even the hardline purists were ready for a bit of rough.
So it was back to basics as a makeshift Boro side sacrificed sexy and stylish for perspiration and pragmatism. While the hallmark of the season so far has been fluid forward movement and silky skill creating chances by the lorry load, the win ugly trip to Wigan was built on shackling the opposition, gritty defending and getting a lot of bodies behind - or at least in the way of - the ball.
And in a delicious twist after weeks of being left reeling at the death, the outcome was that Boro soaked up the pressure then landed a late sucker punch that left the opposition manager, players and furious fans feeling they had been mugged. Result.
The plaudits rightly go to the scratch defence, a unit that had never played together before and would not have been anyone's dream team selection at the start of the season. With Andrew Taylor injured and Emanuel Pogatetz banned Jonathan Grounds was recalled from a loan spell at Norwich to make his first start of the season while perennial stand-in Chris Riggott was promoted from the second string after perma-crock Robert Huth turned an ankle in training on Thursday. Justin Hoyte has shown signs of being a good footballer but had not played on a winning side in the league for Boro yet while David Wheater, a sensation last season, had been off colour in recent weeks.
These last men standing were lined up in front of a rookie shot-stopper who last season would only play in the event of a dire injury crisis but who the boss has taken a gamble on - one that so far has paid off.
Yet the back five put in a display of tungsten toughness to comfortably hold at bay an in -form front-line of the Premier League's top scorer Amr Zaki - Mido's Egypt strike partner - and Boro's long time tormentor Emile Heskey plus a lively midfield that got forward quickly in numbers. Valencia and Palacios were fast and direct and surged forward at every opportunity as Wigan attacked with real intent.
But Boro coped well. The defence cvoncentrated and were alert, they closed quickly, were tenacious in the tackle, held a disciplined line at the back and made the correct decisions as they switched to cover for each other. The well organised unit were completely unphased by Wigan's neat movement. Even in a rocky spell of intense pressure midway through the first half when a goal looked inevitable they did not crack.
In fact having put so much into that flurry Wigan soon faded and in the first half they were being restricted to long range efforts - some spectacularly inaccurate - that rarely tested Turnbull. They had the bulk of possession but looked incapable of making it count.
After the break the home side stepped up the tempo and pushed more men forward but for all the pressure they could still not break through and as they got more frustrated and frantic they increasingly resorted to high balls pumped into the box which Wheater and Riggott relished. It looked like heading practice for them.
On the few occasions that Wigan did manage to find a way through, the fast-improving Turnbull was magnificent, pulling off a string of superb saves, going full length to twice deny Palacios and then bravely charging out to put his chest in the way of a close range Heskey effort late on.
It wasn't always pleasing on the eye. It was scrappy and untidy and at times there were so many men rushing around and going toe-to-toe it was as congested and chaotic in the Boro box as an inner-city riot.
But while they deservedly took the praise for the clean sheet, the defensive grit was not exclusively at the back. The whole team got stuck in. Boro's engine-room duo of flu victim Gary O'Neil and Mohamed Shawky hared around flying into tackles, snapping at heels, closing down across the middle third and blocking runs.
Shawky in particular was putting himself about and ended up battered and bruised and raked with stud marks after being on the wrong end of yellow card tackles from Zaki and Lee Cattermole.
The former Boro boy deserves a passing mention as the stage was set for him to embarrass his former boss and show that it was a mistake to let him go. In fact Hurricane Catts quickly blew itself out after a fast and furious first ten minutes and in a passage of play late in the first half many will find familiar he was hustled off the ball by O'Neil as he failed to control then in an attempt to recover the situation charged after Shawky and stetched into a tackle he was never going to win, tweaking his dodgy hamstringand picking up a yellow card to boot. After that he was rarely involved in the action.
The strikers helped out too. They may not have been a constant threat in the Wigan box but off c olour Afonso Alves - who played long spells as a holding midfielder out on the left blocking the marauding full-back and leaving Stewie in a free role through the middle - and towering targetman Mido often chased back to defend and both made decent tackles on the edge of their own box.
In fact, at one point in the second half, when Boro were under the cosh, Mido was playing so deep he slipped into the George Boateng destroyer role, patrolling in front of the back four flying into tackles he had no right to make. He seemed determined to be the best Egyptian on the pitch. Unless, as one cynic suggested, he was out to impress would-be boss Steve Bruce.
That the strikers were so deep explains why Boro had so few chances and why they found it so hard to relieve the pressure. There was no obvious outlet when the ball was played forward and clearances were falling to Wigan players and coming straight back. Sitting back is a high risk strategy that has cost dearly in the past, not least at Liverpool.
This time it paid off. Wigan over-committed men forward and in the closing spell Boro several times broke out to threaten before Jeremie Aliadiere got a last gasp winner aided and abeted by Didier Digard, whose timely arrival in place of Shawky helped change the shape of the game, and a neat cushioned header from Downing. The winner, when it came, was celebrated with admirable gusto and an intensity that suggested the players were well aware exactly how important it was.
The spirit, the work-rate, the mentality, the strength and the steel at the back all deserve praise and we should not under-estimate how important it was to go back to basics to stop the rot... but you wouldn't want to watch it every week.