Boro and that decision...
Has it already been discussed enough? Well, I’m going to try and make this the last time I discuss it... until the next time someone raises the subject.
Let’s start with the football before I go off on one - the almost sad aspect to it all is that, the first half was an enjoyable watch with two of the best sides in the league going toe-to-toe. In my book, our performance until the referee decided he was in a particularly bad mood, was better than the one that comfortably made light work of Watford in midweek.
Middlesbrough were good in possession, they had a high press - which not many sides do at the Stadium of Light - and they looked like a side who will be challenging in the top six come the end of the season, and for periods of that first half we looked the better side.
Ba’s early effort was just a whisker away from finding the top corner and I’m sure it will be some time before Patrick Roberts manages to stop replaying his final act after his unbelievable mazy run with just over 20 minutes on the clock - highlighting why Roberts is more effective out wide than centrally, but we’ll leave that for another day.
Boro’s only real chance came around five minutes after Roberts’ effort, when a break led to the ball hitting the outside of the post, where Patterson and especially Ballard, combined to keep the score goalless.
The point being, it wasn’t a game full of opportunities, it was cagey as expected with both sides probing each other out in a game of chess to find weaknesses that were few and far between. Games like this are finely balanced and it’s by fine margins if either side is to prevail and take maximum points - enter stage left, the referee.
I can’t even remember his name and I have no inclination to look it up, but the referee decided he would intervene in proceedings when it simply wasn’t consistent to do so.
For the opening 20-30 minutes, he was whistle happy, and for any contact that even hinted at being a free-kick, he blew up. When referees do this in the early period, it is communication from them to the players on how they are going to manage the game. The players then know where they stand in what is and isn’t a free-kick in the referee’s eyes on that particular day.
However, what this fella did was suddenly raise the bar for blowing his whistle midway through the first half and this is where officials lose control of games - by simply being inconsistent.
When this referee decided to suddenly raise the bar around the half hour mark on where the new threshold now stood for awarding a free-kick, frustration levels began to rise on and off the pitch. What was a free-kick in the opening period, suddenly wasn’t anymore and players on both sides were visibly agitated.
Then just before half time, Jack Clarke was bumped on the halfway line and knocked to the floor, probably a toss of a coin whether or not it was a free-kick, but the point was that in the early stages the referee was awarding free-kicks for those incidents.
It led to a Boro attack, and although we dealt with it well, Dan Neil asked the question why that wasn’t a foul. At this point you could argue the merits of how the young midfielder went about it, but it wasn’t aggressive and it was no more than multiple players from either side had done up to that point.
Dan Neil then paid the price for not only the referee being in a particular delicate mood in that specific moment, but also an accumulation of frustration that had been levelled at the official in the period before that incident.
Inconsistencies that meant Matt Crooks left the field without a single yellow card when he could have had 3-4 based on other occasions where the ref felt he was bored/tired, and fancied a break to draw comedy pictures of male genitalia on his cards like a naughty schoolboy.
This was not a 4-0 defeat in pure footballing terms, the referee involved himself and a finely balanced game became heavily weighted in one direction, and you can stomach that when it’s the clear fault of the player breaking the rules enough to have been removed from play, but it’s a tough one to stomach when the act doesn’t fit the punishment and ruins a perfectly good game of football.
After the sending off...
Tony Mowbray said he wanted to “put this game in the bin” after the game and I can understand that, but there was plenty from that first half performance that we can take as positives and I reckon there’s a lot to be taken on board about how we dealt with being a man down.
The change to go five at the back and have Clarke at full-back was a bit baffling. I’ve no evidence of this but this wasn’t in hindsight to losing 4-0, I had this thought, along with a question mark around Ba being asked to hold the ball up top on his own within seconds of the second half kicking off.
Straight away it was obvious that Michael Carrick had instructed his side to keep as much width as possible to stretch the play so they could took advantage of the extra man. It was similar to how we took advantage at QPR a few weeks ago.
This left Clarke exposed and in a position where he became redundant in an attacking sense because we were pinned back and ineffective in the job he was asked to perform against a tricky winger. It didn’t make much sense.
We’ll never know, but I suspect we’d have been more solid with a back four rather than five and setting up with two banks of four to allow us to double up out wide.
I’m a big fan of Tony Mowbray, I think he’s been great and will continue to do good work at the club, but can’t help but think he got it wrong after half time and didn’t give the lads much of a chance.
Taking stock over the international break...
It’s that time again where we have to pause for a round of international games, where I tend to partially switch off from football, but it’s chance to take stock a little of the season so far.
Looking back to the same point last season, we are four places higher in the table and three points better off - happy days.
The difference for me in our eleven league fixtures to date compared to last season is that I think this side have got a couple more gears to move up into.
Last season there were a lot of games where the side have to step it up to get the result, this time around we’re managing to pick up points without really pushing ourselves, the recent win over Watford being a good example.
As much as I don’t really enjoy them, this break gives the opportunity for players who have been out injured or playing while carrying knocks to get themselves fully fit and available for selection as well as giving time to work more on the training ground with players who haven’t been around for all that long.
Two weeks to stew on a heavy home defeat and a referee decision that provided a handicap should hopefully mean they will be looking to take out their frustration on whoever comes next - and with a trip to face Alex Neil’s Stoke City next up, I couldn’t think of a better place to do it.