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Boro in dire need of reinforcements
YELLOW CARD: Boro’s Mustapha Carayol shows his frustration as he is booked by referee Andrew Madley during the match against Leicester City
Final Score: Middlesbrough 1 Leicester City 2
IN the wake of Middlesbrough's dispiriting opening-day defeat to Leicester City, it was easy to conclude that nothing had changed from last season. Actually, however, that is not the case.
Last term, Boro dropped away dramatically in the second half of the campaign. This time around, the decline was evident in the second half of their opening fixture. If nothing else, at least we all know where we stand.
Deservedly leading at the interval thanks to a fortuitous own goal from Sean St Ledger that was nevertheless a just reward for a bright, enterprising first-half display, Boro dropped out the game completely in the final 45 minutes to the extent that their defeat could, and perhaps should, have been much worse.
Leicester's second-half goals from Danny Drinkwater and Jamie Vardy came at a time when the visitors were completely in the ascendant, with Boro displaying many of the failings that had haunted them in the dark days of last term.
The need for reinforcements is clearly pressing, and to his credit, Tony Mowbray did not attempt to hide away from that fact after the final whistle. If they arrive before the end of the transfer window, Saturday can be written off as an early-season wake-up call. If they do not, the fear is that it will be a sign of things to come.
“We've just got to rally together,” said skipper Rhys Williams, who toiled manfully alongside fellow centre-half Jonathan Woodgate as Leicester mounted wave after wave of second-half attacks. “Hopefully the gaffer will be bringing in some reinforcements to help out because it looks like we may need one or two.
“We just need to keep going. It's just the first game and there are 45 to go so there's a lot of points to play for, but we need to generate some momentum now.
“We've done well in pre-season, although we didn't come across anyone as good as Leicester. It was a good test for us, and I think we just need to bring in some more players to help in terms of the competitive side of things.”
The need for attacking reinforcements is acute, and was perhaps the key contributory factor to Saturday's turnaround.
Whereas Boro started brightly, with Marvin Emnes intelligently linking midfield and attack and Mustapha Carayol providing a creative presence on the left-hand side, the hosts' attacking threat disappeared completely as Leicester began to dominate possession after the break.
Carayol and Jozsef Varga, a summer acquisition who does not really look like a natural wide man, barely kicked the ball in the second half as Leicester's wing-backs pushed on to force them into more of a defensive role.
As a result, there was a tendency to look infield for a creative input, but while Dean Whitehead and Grant Leadbitter provide a solid central midfield base, neither is the type of player who will unlock a well-drilled opposition defence.
Starved of service, Emnes became a peripheral presence after the interval, and with Lukas Jutkiewicz struggling to hold the ball up because of a lack of support, it was increasingly a case of one-way traffic towards the Middlesbrough goal.
“It was a game that started pretty well for us, but we didn't really perform in the second half when they stepped on a little bit,” admitted Mowbray. “We lost our fluency in the second half, although we were playing against a decent side.
“We had a good shape about the team in the first half and did the basics very well. In the second half, we didn't do that quite as well.”
In fairness to the Teessiders, things might have been different had Emnes elected to shoot when he found himself one-on-one with Kasper Schmeichel on the stroke of half-time instead of dallying inexplicably before teeing up Leadbitter for a shot that was blocked.
A two-goal lead would have changed the complexion of the second half entirely, but as it was, Leicester assumed the upper hand from the off.
They equalised on the hour mark as Woodgate failed to get enough purchase on his clearance and Drinkwater swept home from a position that was equidistant from the closest Boro defender and the edge of the box.
Seven minutes later and the visitors were ahead as Vardy played a neat one-two with David Nugent before bending home an excellent finish despite a desperate last-ditch challenge from Williams.
The presence of Nugent was instructive, as Leicester boss Nigel Pearson was able to promote the former England international from the bench, and could also have called on experienced figures like Ben Marshall, Lloyd Dyer and Martin Waghorn. Anthony Knockaert, one of the most promising players in the Championship last season, couldn't even make the match-day 18.
Mowbray couldn't name a single striker among his substitutes, and while the likes of Ben Gibson, Richie Smallwood and Luke Williams boast promise, they are hardly likely to transform a game such as Saturday's.
“It's a concern that when I look around, particularly in the forward areas of the pitch, I don't think there is any doubt that we need some reinforcements, some help,” said Mowbray. “We're working very hard to bring that.
“When you look at some of the Leicester players who weren't involved, then you see they have a pretty strong squad. They had a few good players who weren't even involved in their 18 and a very good, strong bench as well. They can bring on a player of the calibre of Nugent to replace (Chris) Wood and with that kind of depth, they won't be far away again this season.”
Can Middlesbrough emerge as contenders? Admittedly it's dangerous to make too many predictions on the back of just one game, but on the evidence of the opening weekend, it's hard to see the current squad being strong enough or creative enough to mount a viable promotion campaign.
“There are a lot of decent sides in this league and it's going to be very tough and competitive,” said Mowbray. “We have got to find some additions because then I feel we can compete with anybody on any given day.”
Finding those additions is the easy part though. Actually signing them increasingly appears to be a completely different matter.
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