7:00am Monday 17th March 2014
By Scott Wilson
Full-time: Bournemouth 0 Middlesbrough 0
IT felt like summer in the sunlit resort of Bournemouth at the weekend, and from a Middlesbrough perspective, the holiday season cannot come quickly enough. Ten more games like this, and it's safe to say we'll all be in need of a restorative break.
A season that was briefly re-energised by the arrival of Aitor Karanka is dying the slowest of deaths, and while the next seven weeks offer an opportunity for experimentation and potential improvement, it is clear that some major summer surgery is required if Boro are to reinvent themselves as promotion contenders next season.
The chief problem is clear, and is highlighted by a series of damning statistics. Three goals in the last ten games, no goal away from home in more than seven hours of football, no effort on target in the whole of Saturday's latest goalless draw.
Karanka deserves credit for tightening up a defence that was leaking goals left, right and centre at the start of the season, and a tally of 11 clean sheets in the last 16 games is not to be sniffed at.
However, if you don't create chances, you're not going to score goals. And if you don't score goals, you're clearly not going to collect the points required to have any chance of winning promotion.
“We've got goalscorers and we've got good players, we're just not doing it at the minute,” admitted Ben Gibson, who was Boro's brightest light at the Goldsands Stadium. “Why is something we haven't answered.
“We're working as hard as we can to put it right, but obviously it hasn't happened yet. Hopefully, we'll put it right in the next game.
“We aren't as fluent going forward as we were and we aren't scoring as many goals. But I think the changes we've made are worth it because the only way you're going to have success in this league is by building from the back and being solid in defence.
“We've corrected that and are solid now and tough to break down. We're tough to score past, but now we have to start putting the ball in the other net.”
On the evidence of the last couple of months, that is easier said than done, and while there are clearly a multitude of factors at play, issues of tactics and personnel come to the fore.
Since replacing Tony Mowbray on a permanent basis, Karanka has almost exclusively fielded a 4-2-3-1 formation with two holding midfielders playing in front of the back four.
On Saturday, the pair were Grant Leadbitter and Dean Whitehead, and while the presence of two screening players has undoubtedly been a major factor in Boro's defensive improvement, the fact that neither shows any inclination to push forward is a major hindrance to the team's attacking ambitions.
With neither Leadbitter nor Whitehead pushing on, and Albert Adomah and Mustapha Carayol rarely straying from their respective flanks, Lee Tomlin and Danny Graham often found themselves up against four opponents.
Consequently, they failed to even hint at a breakthrough, yet Karanka shows no inclination to reject a system he clearly believes in.
“We won 2-0 at Millwall and 2-0 at Blackpool playing with the same system, just with different players,” he said. “The system was the same, and therefore I do not think it is a problem with our shape. That is not the reason why we have not scored any goals.”
The evidence would suggest otherwise, and with other Championship sides hardly awash with attacking midfield talent, instructing two players to sit deep is surely a misguided approach.
Perhaps a change of personnel would help, and with Graham unlikely to make a permanent switch from Sunderland this summer, largely because of his wage payments if nothing else, there is going to be huge pressure on Karanka and the rest of his recruitment team to sign attackers capable of making an impact despite receiving limited support.
Tomlin's industry and commitment suggests he could play a useful role, even if he is yet to convince as a goalscorer, but Boro desperately need a proven striker to spearhead their attacking threat. Attracting one to a mid-table Championship side, however, will clearly be a challenge.
At least the Teessiders have successfully addressed their issues at the other end of the field, and there was much to admire in the quality of their defensive display against Bournemouth.
Ben Gibson and Kenneth Omeruo, 21 and 20 respectively, were dominant and resolute at the heart of the back four, while full-backs George Friend and Jozsef Varga were every bit as solid and reliable.
Gibson produced a superb second-half challenge on the edge of the six-yard box to deny Marc Pugh, and goalkeeper Dimi Konstantopoulos was forced into two excellent late saves to deny Simon Francis and Andrew Surman, but on the whole, Boro never looked like conceding.
That said, however, they were still reliant on two controversial first-half decisions from referee Fred Graham, both of which went in their favour and both of which had a major bearing on the game.
The first saw Leadbitter booked rather than sent off in the 19th minute, even though he clearly kicked the back of Matt Ritchie's legs after the Bournemouth midfielder impeded his attempts to clamber off the ground.
“It was petty, and it happens game in, game out,” said Gibson. Maybe, but other referees might well have taken a dimmer view of Leadbitter's actions and forced Boro to play for more than 70 minutes with ten men.
Twenty minutes later, and Bournemouth had the ball in the net when hesitation from Konstantopoulos on the edge of the area enabled Lewis Grabban to win possession and roll the ball into an empty net.
It was deemed a foul, but Konstantopoulos' obvious uncertainty meant it was hard to be certain that the ball was under control.
“I didn't think the goalkeeper had it in two hands or under control at all,” said Bournemouth boss Eddie Howe. “I thought Grabban was well within his rights to go for it, and we're disappointed with the decision.”
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