With Town’s abysmal record against the high flyers and spenders of the Championship, a heavy defeat was probably not unexpected, but the manner of the loss was dispiriting for reasons which were apparent under Powell and don’t simply disappear with a refreshing change of manager.
Three of the back four playing against an impressive Middlesbrough – who were in control despite allowing Town lots of largely unproductive possession – are either too old, too slow or simply not good enough for the progress Wagner hopes to make over the next year or so.
The defensive shields – Whitehead and Huws – have an air of stopgap about them, with one coming to the end of a career which has proved useful to Town before his injury but less so since and the other strolling about with the reduced conviction of a player whose future lays away from the club.
A surfeit of wide men found it beyond them to create threat against a classy, solid defence and top scorer Wells was again left to feed off scraps against a club stingy with goal concessions at home all season.
After controlling the first 20 minutes without causing the home team any problems whatsoever – the theme of the game was Town looking pretty at times but all of it in front of a resolute home team who just had to pick their moments to unleash pace and skill in abundance – Middlesbrough got closer to the player on the ball and forced error after error in possession, knocking Town off their stride before delivering killer blows.
Steer had already made one good save from the otherwise quiet Jordan Rhodes when a poor clearance by Lynch (who chose to head a ball he maybe should have volleyed away) was picked up by Clayton, played inside to Leadbitter and moved on to the impressive Ramirez – he had set up Rhodes’ chance – who drew a clumsy foul by Lynch for a penalty. Leadbitter rarely misses and didn’t.
The speed of the move had caught Town flat footed and a defence already beginning to be undermined by the pace on the left of Adomah and his supporting full back was to be breached again following a bad error by Whitehead just minutes later.
Ramirez accepted the gift that his pressing had earned and his progress was unimpeded as he rounded Steer and finished expertly.
Town’s admirable but largely ineffectual ball retention in the early stages had at least established some sort of foothold in what was always going to be a pretty daunting game, but 2 errors destroyed those endeavours with cold, cruel efficiency. That the wounds were self inflicted shouldn’t detract from Ramirez’s quality which lit up the game all night.
When Town did manage to fashion promising opportunities – on the few occasions that their movement was clever enough to get beyond Middlesbrough’s disciplined lines – hesitancy filled them, with both Huws and Paterson guilty of dallying or needing an extra touch when a shot may have brought reward. Paterson, perhaps the stand out, along with Steer, of a poor field, missed the opportunity to shoot in injury time when a goal at that stage may have fostered some doubt in the minds of the confident, classy home side.
Space had becoming increasingly difficult to find against Boro’s disciplined midfield and any bright moments on the break crashed against an even stronger back line than they had faced on Saturday, and possession was largely maintained negatively, sometimes perilously, along the back four.
The alternative, however, was even worse, with any forced long ball (and there were far too many) resulting in Wells bouncing off big defenders.
With hopes pretty much extinguished by half time and results elsewhere looking as if unnecessary pressure was on the cards for the weekend and beyond, a gloom descended on the away contingent which, sadly, in the second half saw some turn against the admittedly hapless Davidson with booing.
However bad the Australian was – and he looked significantly further out of his depth than any other Town player – jeering him was indefensible. When he slung over a couple of good but futile crosses, the one reliable aspect of his game shut them up to an extent, but his future looks increasingly uncertain.
A huffing, puffing beginning to the second half rather flattered to deceive with no chances of any note resulting from play which looked competent and even pleasing on the eye at times, until it broke down with a misplaced ball, a start again back pass or lazy shots from improbable distances or angles.
The hosts simply had to sit back and be patient as they knew that the devastating pace of Adomah, the guile of Ramirez or the marauding of George Friend (oh for a left back of his quality!) would be brought in to play soon enough.
There were glimpses of the style of play Wagner is trying to introduce, but the frustration of moves breaking down far too easily was difficult to watch.
With Boro coasting, soaking up the light pressure with consummate ease and not having to expend much energy, a 3rd goal was always likely. A fast break was ended with a foul just outside the area and Ramirez stepped up to place an unstoppable free kick past Steer. The quality of the strike emphasised just how much work and recruitment Wagner will have to do to get Town competing in the right half of the table; a top 6 finish looks a generation away.
It is barely a secret that Rhodes and Downing are Boro’s highest paid players – very possibly amassing £100,000 per week between them – yet, rather frighteningly, these 2 were probably the poorest performers for the home side on the night, particularly Downing who wouldn’t have looked out of place in our team.
However, the same problems which faced Powell, and other managers of the relatively impoverished clubs in the division, haven’t gone away – Town are not going to go on a suicidal spending spree, quite rightly, and the patience Hoyle and Wagner have asked for is arguably more important to respect and follow on the bad nights when natural limitations are exposed.
There is no alternative to trying to break the mould in a different, sustainable manner. While Boro’s spending is likely to be rewarded with automatic promotion (their run in looks straightforward with lots of home games), there are others where the gamble will not pay off and those clubs could emulate the financial basket cases of Bolton, Forest, Leeds, Blackburn and QPR.
After a poor night, and one which you suspect will spur Wagner in to some action, it was something of a relief that the gap to the 3rd bottom place was exactly the same and with one less game to play. More manageable games are on the horizon and the shadow of relegation, already faint, should lift entirely quite soon. It is then that the revolution can begin in earnest; but no miracles can or are being promised.