There are stages of a season when you look at trends, details, what positives might be taken from a game whatever the outcome. When you’re in a 10-game season and begin it just above the bottom three it isn’t one of them. You want results and if not evidence that everyone is up for the fight. And today we had neither. We lost, against a pretty ordinary team, and have no real complaints. Conceded an awful goal after 20 minutes and after that failed to make their keeper produce a decent save, relied on our own to pull off one blinding save to keep us in it. Yes, we were better in the second half, but the bar was low, we might have converted one of a few half-chances. But I don’t think anyone went away thinking other than that we have to play better than that if we are to stay up.
Let’s get the details out of the way. I was quite encouraged by news of the starting line-up. Looked like a 4-4-2 with Matthews, Pearce, Oshilaja and Purrington in front of Phillips, but it proved really to be 4-5-1 with Cullen and the returning Pratley in central midfield, plus Williams and Green operating wide, Lapslie in a central advanced role, and Taylor really on his own up front. Whatever the formation, you look for evidence that all out there are on their toes and ready from the start.
Instead through lack of concentration we gave away two bad positions in the first couple of minutes. Middlesbrough get a free kick in our half on their right side and we stand around and watch, only for them to play it short and almost get in as we were on the back foot. Just not acceptable. And shortly after a cross from a similar position flashed across the face of the goal.
To be fair in the first phase of the game we had our moments. Green and Taylor combined twice to create chances for each other. First Green was played in but from a reasonable position hit the shot straight at their keeper, then a ball in from Green found Taylor in space only for him to put it over the bar.
Then we gifted Middlesbrough a crucial lead. Our throw, in our half, nobody was paying attention because there was no danger. Until we passed the ball into space and their guy gratefully received the ball, took it forward, played it inside to another who simply slotted it home. A goal out of nothing and from our perspective utterly absurd in any game. In a game like this just not acceptable.
That gave Middlesbrough everything they needed, to be content behind the ball with a couple of decent centre-backs, to absorb most of what might get thrown at them. And for the remainder of the first half that wasn’t much. We looked sluggish and short of confidence, unable to fashion anything more of note going forward. Neither did Boro, but they didn’t need to.
To be frank in the first half we looked like a disjointed rabble, as if we didn’t believe in ourselves. Three of the back four were not automatic first choices and played as if that was in their heads (with the exception of Oshilaja), Cullen was strangely subdued, Williams looked short of match fitness, Pratley was chasing everything, Lapslie was drifting around to no real effect, and after a bright start Green was becoming isolated. We’d given Boro a goal and not put them under the sort of pressure to suggest we might get one back.
Had to be a change at the break and Lapslie was taken off for Bonne. And we did improve, not necessarily because of the change but because the attitude and intensity were better. Taylor was causing problems and it looked like we might get something out of the game. At least things were happening and Boro were looking less comfortable than before, even if their centre-backs dealt with most of what was thrown at them.
We did manage to create moments, just no real chances. Taylor’s cross found Bonne at the near post but the best he could do was prod it towards their keeper, Taylor himself went down for a penalty shout only to get a yellow card for simulation, and later in the game, after Doughty had replace Williams and Hemed came on for Purrington in a final desperate gamble for the final 10 minutes, we had more shouts for penalties (a possible handball and one where Taylor was being manhandled), a header from Hemed, and what proved to be the final opportunity as a ball in was met by Bonne only for his header to flash wide. But not one of these opportunities could be called a real chance; and not one of them resulted in their keeper having to make a save. By contrast Boro, while content to keep what they had, were only denied a second goal by a superb save to his left from Phillips and their own inability to shoot on target from decent positions.
On another day we might have scrambled an equaliser. On the balance of play in the second half we might then have said we deserved it. That would be to draw a veil over a dire first half and the fact that we didn’t force a decent save over the full game. If we are to stay up we have to be better than we were today and that is down to Bowyer and his people coming up with the right combinations from what’s available, plus those selected believing in themselves. After the Huddersfield defeat Bowyer said “that will be hurting them today; I’m looking forward to the reaction I get”. He will be disappointed by that reaction, as we all are.
Phillips – 9/10. Little to do after their goal but pulled off an outstanding save to deny them a second.
Matthews – 7/10. Decent game really, can’t remember any material errors and doesn’t deserve a worse mark.
Purrington – 6/10. I’m not sure who was really to blame for their goal, like our players wasn’t paying that much attention as there was no danger. Otherwise it was a shaky start but then did OK.
Pearce – 6/10. He did struggle, looks short of confidence. No lack of commitment.
Oshilaja – 7/10. One awful pass out of defence in the second half but otherwise had a decent game, just has to look and play as though he belongs, which can’t be easy when he isn’t viewed as first-choice.
Cullen – 5/10. Strangely subdued performance, I’ve no idea why, perhaps just tired.
Pratley – 6/10. Can’t fault the effort but sometimes, especially in the second half, was getting on the end of things through that commitment when others were better placed.
Williams – 5/10. Also for me off the pace, perhaps just not match-fit. Failed to have much impact in the first half and replaced not long into the second.
Lapslie – 5/10. Flitted around to no real effect in the first half and replaced at the break.
Green – 6/10. He was often our major threat, just didn’t deliver either the killer pass or clinical finish we were hoping for, also seemed to switch off at times.
Taylor – 7/10. Did cause them problems, no idea if he should have had a penalty or two (or if he deserved the yellow card). Struggled with what looked like an ankle injury – and if he has to take another break that would be serious for us.
Subs – Bonne (6/10 – certainly we improved in the second half but he failed to convert the two chances that came his way, the cross from Taylor and the late header); Doughty (5/10 – had much of the second half but really didn’t get in the game); Hemed (5/10 – only 10 mins on the pitch and his introduction, as at Huddersfield, was really a last throw of the dice).