With some lacklustre defeats already to our name this season, this 2-0 defeat at Middlesbrough tops the lot for the campaign thus far. Unable to get anything going in attack, it was a case of when Middlesbrough would score and not if.
Excruciatingly, the Sky Blues came close to getting away with a poor showing here, holding on until the 81st minute before Britt Assombalonga pounced on a moment’s lapse in concentration at the back to put Middlesbrough ahead. From then on, defeat was inevitable, but the home side grabbed a further goal to rub salt into our wounds and seal the win.
Looking For A Defensive Platform
As much as we want to bring our possession-based style of football from League One into the Championship, what is going to keep us in the division is being able to replicate the ability we had to keep clean sheets. As poor as we were in attack here, it’s a game we could have won by virtue of having stayed in it for the majority of it.
This was a case study in how important it’s going to be for us to be tighter at the back than we currently are. Once we fell behind, getting back into the game seemed an insurmountable task. Middlesbrough’s second goal exposed how difficult it is for us to chase games at this level – unable to pin teams back and without the pace at the back to cover for the counter-attack.
However, there were signs here of where we might begin to build our defensive platform. The stand-out performers in Sky Blue were Dominic Hyam and Leo Ostigard, who played discipline and composure, making some important interventions when they needed to. It made it difficult for Middlesbrough to play directly through us, often relying on the counter-attack or through individual skill to make that breakthrough.
The problem may be that it may be difficult for us to mitigate for counter-attacks and individual skill at this level, but replicating across the pitch the qualities we saw in Ostigard and Hyam would aid our cause.
The missing ingredient in our defensive set-up in this game was Liam Kelly’s physical presence in front of the back-line. While Sheaf and Hamer had their moments, they struggled to impose themselves in the centre of the park in a defensive sense. They were caught between trying to win challenges they were incapable of winning or dropping deep and inviting pressure. It feels like with Kelly alongside one of Sheaf and Hamer, we don’t have to ask them to be the type of midfielder that they are not.
A Familiar Lack of Attacking Impetus
The biggest concern about this performance was just how little we offered going forward. Three shots on goal tells its own story. We just didn’t have the attacking quality to sustain any kind of threat on Middlesbrough’s goal.
With the wing-backs pinned back by Middlesbrough’s wide-men, we were often attacking with just three players – Matt Godden, Jordan Shipley and Jamie Allen. Through a combination of poor decision-making and a lack of physical or technical prowess, they did little to concern the Middlesbrough defence.
As much as we were pinned back for long spells in this game, a little more quality and presence of mind from those three – along with the wing-backs on their occasional attacking forays – could have won us the game. When presented with promising positions, moves broke down through players attempting passes into areas their team-mates weren’t looking to run into, overhit crosses, or through being unable to beat opposition defenders.
It’s becoming clear that we’re going to struggle to create and score a large number of chances with the current set-up and personnel in attack. Going back to the previous point, it underlines why it’s going to be so important to become more solid defensively.
Do Things Need To Change?
It’s now six games without a win, with some pretty heavy and demoralising defeats along the way. We’ve tried replicating what we did in League One in the Championship but it doesn’t look like it’s going to be enough to make the step up. This may well be the point where Mark Robins is going to have to look at changing things up.
However, the biggest thing preventing him doing so is that the summer recruitment has been based on fitting players into the 3-4-2-1 system. We don’t seem to have any natural full-backs in order to operate with a back four, nor am I sure that we could play with natural wingers. Playing two up-top is a consideration, but we saw against Brentford that it can end up leaving our defence more exposed without the benefit of adding to our attacking threat.
Any changes are going to stem from mentality rather than by changing tactics or hoping that someone steps up out of nowhere to become a leading player at this level. It could well be a case of adopting a defence-first approach, accepting for a while that we’re going to stink things up going forward, possibly losing games by the odd goal or two (such as this one) but slowly gaining defensive solidity and slowly starting to pick up points.
This was the job that Mark Robins did on each occasion after he was appointed as manager of the club – perhaps more impressively while we were on our way to relegation from League One with a poor and inexperienced set of players. Both times, those early performances were difficult to watch but they ultimately begat results, which begat confidence, which begat more authoritative performances.
Right now, the main thing to hold onto is that Mark Robins has shown that he is pragmatic enough to modify the team’s mentality in order to get results. He’s clearly reluctant to do so, but we may now be at the point where he has little choice.