Wednesday, 8 August 2018

Game by Game - 6

SkyBet Championship: Middlebrough (A), 3-0

A United View welcomes Phil Ridley to its writing ranks with his take on last night's game from the Riverside, whilst I offer three final thoughts from the comfort of my sofa and the red button coverage.

After leaving the rest of the family back in the holiday house we had rented in the Yorkshire Dales for the week, we finally got to Middlesbrough at about 6, only to be directed by a local Bobby to the ‘away boozer’. It turned out, after a 20 minute walk, we had been directed back to the mid-80’s. We stayed for one anyway before heading to the ground. The awful pub experience turned out to be an appropriate metaphor for the night ahead, with a painful first half performance on a par with many you might have seen under the reign of Billy McEwan. 

The team selection, even after Saturday, I actually had no problem with. I thought a slightly more cautious approach might suit against a talented Boro side. How wrong could I be. The first 25 minutes were anything but cautious. The warning signs were there when, despite United kicking off, Henderson proved his worth within a minute. Within 10 we were two down. Boro’s first corner was a simple one played to an unmarked Shotton at the near post to flick on to the unmarked Braithwaite to stab home. The second corner was played towards the back post and a similarly unmarked (and scorer of multiple goals from corners last season) Aden Flint. Shocking defending for both.

It wasn’t just at the back we looked shaky, the much maligned midfield three of Fleck, Evans and Lundstram were offering little, as were Stevens and Baldock. McGoldrick was trying in vain to make things happen but it’s tough up top when you’re on your own....

Boro’s third came in equally frustrating fashion. A cross from deep by Shotton that should really have been closed down and then dealt with by one of the four defenders it went passed on its way to Stuart Downing. The finish was fortuitous, seeming to just hit the former England man before bouncing up and over Henderson, however it could and should have been dealt with.  3-0 down after as bad a 25 minutes I’ve seen since Chris Wilder took our club by the scruff of the neck and gave it a shake. Not even that approach could salvage anything from this. That said, the ironic cheers for Henderson when he caught an aimless ball by a number of Blades behind me was pathetic.

It was at this point the manager changed us to a 4-4-2 and we started looking a little less like conceding every time they attacked. Basham in the middle of the park was flying into tackles and trying to drive forwards, giving Fleck a little more freedom. Half time came and the players left to boos from many of the travelling Blades.

Second half brought Woodburn into the game for Lundstram and United looked the better side from the off, although for Boro the game was already won so who could blame them if they had taken their foot off the pedal. Within a couple of minutes though, Clarke (who I had forgotten was playing) missed a simple chance. A header at the back post that was meat and drink for the player we had pre- Christmas. Whilst we were far from spectacular, we continued to be the side looking more likely to  score next. Woodburn looked busy, Fleck more like himself and Evans was getting into advanced positions more regularly.

Duffy coming on for McGoldrick after an hour gave us even more impetus, creating a much needed link between the midfield and attack. The final half hour was a case of what might have been. First Clarke and then Evans, by falling over the ball, both fluffed one on ones that seemed easier to score. Randolph saved well from Stevens and Egan had a chance to open his United account. All in all this just added to the frustration. As I tweeted last night and then echoed by Wilder in his interview, we didn’t do the basics well in enough in either box.

Clearly there are issues at the minute, struggles in the transfer market, not taking chances, conceding soft goals and ‘wags’ sticking their oar in unnecessarily. One thing I’m sure of though, if anyone can sort it, it’s Chris Wilder. Onwards to QPR and what I expect to be a much changed starting eleven.

Three final thoughts (from the comfort of the sofa):

Perspective is in short supply at the moment. When you have watched United teams under Harry Haslam, (the aforementioned) Billy McEwan, Adrian Heath and Micky Adams you know there has been much worse. However, what alarmed me the most was the lethargy (of body and mind) in that first half. Several players looked like they had won a raffle for a shirt and wandered on to the pitch, dazed and confused. The game was just passing them by. 

We have generally been spoilt in Chris Wilder's reign and that means when something goes so badly wrong as that first half, on the back of a rocket for the players after Saturday, people are genuinely concerned. But as people who were there commented, to stand there and chant "We're fucking shit" over and over shows a lack of recognition of how far we have come in a short space of time. It isn't "banter", it just makes it harder for the players. It is unhelpful and potentially damaging. To tweet and suggest that Wilder has given up, or that the club should refund fans for last night's game are frankly ridiculous. The latter  demonstrating a level of entitlement all too prevalent that doesn't fully comprehend what football support is all about.

Spirit has rarely been questioned under Chris Wilder and he has been careful in his acquisitions and man management to not disrupt the unity and togetherness engendered in that first season. However, it was noticeable on Saturday how heads dropped when Swansea equalised and last night there was lots of  finger pointing and debate from players with slumped shoulders, as the game went away from the Blades. I saw someone on the S24SU forum comment on the lack of team spirit being evident in Portugal, I wasn't there and to be fair I haven't seen it mentioned by anyone else, but it was notable  last night that we lacked a bit of unity. Clarke as captain doesn't make sense, when last season we signed Stearman (ex-Wolves captain) and now have Egan (former Brentford captain). Where is the man to lift the players on the pitch to dictate, to organise and cajole? We have enough experience for one of them to step up and take up the mantel, rather than point fingers and cast blame.

Talking of casting blame, the poorly masked tweets of Mrs Duffy (post Swansea) and Mrs Sharp (last night), do their other halves few favours. We might agree that both players should have a more prominent role in the team, but indirecting at the manager and his staff via social media demonstrates immaturity and thoughtlessness that at best irritates and at its worst generates ill will. 

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