Starved as they have been of excitement and attacking intent, Town fans warmly applauded a defeat against a dour but highly effective Middlesbrough at the end of each half.
While the sympathetic appreciation was well deserved following a first period of verve, adventure and creativity, the rather plodding second half consisting largely of repeatedly banging their heads against the brick wall of a composed and largely untroubled Boro defence was perhaps more to reflect the hard work of a side trying valiantly to put new ideas in to practise.
The disintegration witnessed at Hillsborough after an hour was not repeated, though another late goal which killed the contest had a similar, puncturing effect.
It is still too early to assess the magnitude of the calculated risk taken by Dean Hoyle, particularly as Wagner has been pitted against 2 likely contenders for the top 6, but it is also too early to dismiss the possibility that there may be an element of Emperor’s new clothes about a style which has yet to translate in to goals or points.
To focus on the positives, however, Town repeatedly reduced their more experienced opponents to hurried and wasteful long balls in to touch or returned to the home back four, and their dangerous players, particularly Downing and Adomah, were entirely neutralised. A quite remarkable 75% possession statistic was testament to the players’ ability to carry out a key component of Wagner’s philosophies; while it could be argued that Boro’s ultra conservative approach contributed to Town’s dominance of the ball, it may also be that one of the division’s best sides was forced in to containment for fear of ceding space near their goal.
The visitors were allowed the luxury of defending in depth and numbers by virtue of an early goal which owed a little to luck but also, indirectly, from a poor ball from Cranie which found Downing. His attempted cross resulted in a corner which appeared to have been dealt with routinely, only for the ball to fall to Clayton who evaded an attempted block by Wells before cleverly beating Huws and Chilwell. His shot took a wicked deflection off Whitehead but it can’t be denied that his thrust in to the area from an unpromising position, including having to recover from a slip after getting the better of Wells, was a worthy effort.
Coming after just 8 minutes, there was a danger that a potentially fragile team, haunted by far too many defeats, would shrivel in the face of adversity. Shrugging off the setback, however, Town went on to produce their best football of the season and the lack of reward was cruel and undeserving.
As Boro retreated, rarely to be seen as an attacking force again, Wagner’s men began to manipulate space with multiple passing moves and while this became occasionally stilted, their opponents’ resilience was increasingly tested. Unfortunately, any semblance of fortune eluded the team in the final third and 3 potentially game changing moments were to determine the outcome of the whole game.
A foul on the lively Paterson on the edge of the area, given by what we can only presume to have been reluctance by a quite appalling referee who missed numerous offences by the visitors while punishing Town at every opportunity, presented the first chance just minutes after Boro’s opener.
Wells curled an excellent effort against the bar with Konstantopolous (who shall be referred to as “the keeper” from here on in!) well beaten.
Shortly afterwards, Huws found Scannell with a lovely, raking pass from his own half which exposed the visitors defence to a rare moment of vulnerability. The winger’s sweeping ball to Wells was ever so slightly over hit, forcing the Bermudian to stretch to receive the ball taking him to his left and allowing Boro’s keeper time to smother an attempted clip.
The best move of the half was still to come. A quick throw by Chilwell to Whitehead was pushed forward to Paterson who back heeled for Chilwell to put in a low, dangerous cross met by Scannell but well blocked by the keeper’s legs.
Had any of the 3 chances resulted in an equaliser, it would have been the least Town deserved and the game would have been very different. An ambitious Boro side would have become more expansive – which, of course, could have seen them imposing their quality more effectively or, alternatively, provided Town with the space they found increasingly difficult to find in the second half.
Paterson also had a shot well saved, though it had been preceded by a foul on Wells on the edge of the area predictably ignored by the referee.
Frustrated as they were by an undeserved deficit at half time, home supporters had seen how the new style of play was in stark contrast to the caution to which they had become accustomed and there was a palpable air of optimism around the place as the players left to an ovation.
Sadly, the promise of the first half rather withered in the second. Boro were still being forced in to losing possession with ugly clearances and energy levels didn’t dramatically wilt as they had 7 days ago, but it became increasingly difficult to penetrate a resolute defence content to contain.
Poor crossing – particularly from the otherwise impressive debutant Chilwell – didn’t help and the visitors became increasingly comfortable with Town playing in front of them.
Promising build up play, including surging runs by Smith, Lolley and substitute Holmes (who put in a mature performance of some potential) floundered at the edge of the area, some clever interplay was unable to produce the necessary penetration and a reluctance to shoot from distance made an equaliser increasingly unlikely.
Wagner’s other substitutions failed to create the impetus Holmes provided. Dempsey found it difficult to get in to the game on the left while Bojaj’s promise is likely to remain embryonic for now – he doesn’t look ready – though he had the best chance of the half when good work on the left created a rare decent ball in to the area which he could only scuff when close in.
Despite their reluctance to get forward, it was inevitable that Boro would attack at some point and, for once, they got the better of a tussle just inside Town’s half and a good ball up to Forshaw was cleverly flicked by the substitute in to the path of spellcheck nightmare Nsue to finish nicely.
While the final result was harsh on Town, and whatever luck was available throughout the 90 minutes fell Boro’s way, the lack of striking options available to Wagner (reduced further by Vaughan’s departure) is a severe handicap which can’t be solved, if it can be solved, until January.
Having said that, many less resolute teams than Boro will crumble in the face of the intensity shown in the first half, the transformation to the new style has been remarkably quick and there is time and room for much further improvement.
Sometimes, it is worth heeding the words of an outsider, and while Karanka was speaking from the perch of victory, there was a sincerity in his advice;
“It was not a good performance but sometimes games are like that.
“Huddersfield looked like the top team, not us. Huddersfield played really well and I expected that.
“I saw Huddersfield at Sheffield Wednesday and it’s no surprise how well they played.
“David Wagner may have lost his first two games but he should keep going with his philosophy. When I came here I lost two of my first five matches but Middlesbrough trusted me and if Huddersfield trust him they will do well.”
Patience still needed.