Why always Barnsley?

Back in August, at a time when any football supporter should be looking at the top of the table with the phrase “this is our year” running through their mind, I was contemplating roadkill, helplessness and my growing disaffection with football.

Since then, Middlesbrough’s season has progressed with, shall we say, predictability. Several wins, some losses, Manager of the Month, scrappy cup victories over minnows, glorious cup defeats to superiors, no league points between the decorations coming down and the daffodils coming out. There’s no point attaching a year to the story – it’s just the same one all Boro supporters know off by heart.

So it’s slightly curious that the return fixture should be the one to bring me back to my keyboard. It’s the first league game I’ve seen since it became obvious that the New Year’s Day surrender at Derby was the start of a pattern, rather than a blip, and I was interested to see if there was anything glaringly obvious going on.

Turns out, there is. We’re not keeping the ball.

There’s a lot of talk in football about systems, positioning, tucking in, overlapping, matching up, dropping deep, and all the other assorted expertisms that come with people who think that Andy Gray drawing lines on a screen was the single biggest innovation in the game’s history.

I’m sure these things make a difference, at the margins. To use a motorsport analogy, they are the little slots, geometries and winglets that give the last point of downforce that makes the difference between a championship-winning Red Bull and a midfield-plodding Mercedes.

None of those things will be any use to any car, however, if the driver points the thing the wrong way, or the team don’t put enough petrol in the tank. Or, in football, if the players keep giving the ball to their opponents.

Boro started doing this very early in the game. I read an opinion that Barnsley’s first goal, after five minutes, was the fault of left-back George Friend, who left too much space between himself and the scorer O’Brien, so he couldn’t get a decent block in when the shot arrived, and instead deflected it into the net. I assume it was a lack of space that meant the Coriolis effect on the spin of the ball (given the high latitude of the stadium) wasn’t considered.

What actually happened was that Boro gave the ball away. The visitors punted a hopeful high ball towards Rhys Williams, whose performance all afternoon could politely be described as “woeful”. If Williams had been playing up to his “Rolls Rhys” reputation, he would have taken a pace back, chested it down, sidestepped his opponent and played a neat pass down the line. If he had been playing as a basic defender, he would have launched a forceful header 50 yards forwards, or at the very very least put it into touch.

Instead, he stood underneath the ball and wafted a weak header to the nearest Barnsley player. A few passes later and the “killer ball” (quite a good one, by the way) was leaving Friend cursing his geometry and Steele pawing at thin air, like a cat vainly trying to catch a bluebottle.

And this continued throughout the first half. Williams repeated the same trick at least once, and spent the rest of the time heading down blind alleys and making half-hearted passes. Over on the left, Friend followed his captain’s example. Passes from the midfield, none of whom stood out for special mention either good or bad, found opposing fullbacks or the touchline more often than they found a colleague. Up front, Lukas Jutkiewicz gave a perfect demonstration of why having one designated “forward” player very rarely works, at one point having to try to hold the ball while surrounded by five defenders.

The second half brought a brief demonstration of what happens if you make a good, accurate pass. Ledesma, in his own half, swivelled and played a low, fast ball into the path of Carayol. This caused such panic in the away defence that all Muzzy had to do was keep running while the inevitable mix-up played out, then pop the ball into an empty net from six yards.

The second goal was a good deal scrappier, albeit after a half-decent build-up, and then a double substitution put the Tykes (who lived up to their terrier-like nickname all afternoon) back on top. Steele flapped at a Delap-alike Delap throw-in, Dyer backed out of a challenge in the box, and the ball bobbled through to Golbourne who did his best to miss from even closer than Carayol.

Happily, the winner came with a couple of elements of comedy. Hines made the 873rd backpass of the afternoon, and this time Steele slipped while trying to perform his normally-effective drag back. He then did what goalkeepers do naturally, conceding a free kick thanks to yet another of football’s Rules With Unintended Consequences.

It was at this point that the visiting supporters appeared to descend into some kind of collective delusion. To a man, woman and child, they jumped up and began baying for Steele to be sent off. When it became clear that the referee was somewhat better versed in the Laws of Football than they were, their song of “You don’t know what you’re doing” was surely aimed at each other rather than the blameless official.

He even tried to level up the cheating at the free kick. Barnsley widened the angle by taking it a yard or so further in from the goal line, so he let the wall stand about seven yards away. Perhaps if Friend had got even tighter he would have managed to get a better block on it, rather than putting his second deflection over a similarly-helpless Steele.

And that, barring some huff and puff, was that. Only Andre Bikey came out of the game with any credit – for a couple of barnstorming runs when he got sick of the dross around him, for bullying Marlon Harewood out of the game (not something I think I’ve ever seen before), and for the incredible feat of running twenty yards, arms waving, to scream at an official yet avoiding a booking.

(If Bikey wants to learn to be PROPERLY demonstrative, by the way, he needs to watch Barnsley manager David Flitcroft. Every time the ball came near him, he was jumping up and down, running on the spot and flapping about like a demented 118 advert. I don’t know if the bookies have a market on “manager most likely to be sent to the stands”, but he must be a short-priced favourite if they do.)

In the end, all three goals came from allowing the opposition the ball too easily in one way or another. What Boro need to do is to keep it as simple and accurate as possible. Think back to the tiki-taka way they walked round Watford at Vicarage Road (with the help of a dodgy dismissal). Perhaps Tony Mowbray’s habit of tinkering with the team means that they’re not familiar with who will be where, and what they will do. Perhaps playing somebody at right-back who can play at right-back would help. But above all else, the other team cannot score unless they have the ball (or you have Frank Sinclair on your side).

As for me…well, sorry, but I laughed when their third goal went in. The combination of comedic factors outweighed the disappointment at the goal. Like in August, I can’t get too upset about it. Like in August, the ancillary distastefulness of elements of football crowds manifested itself, this time in the form of some middle-aged shaven-headed men squaring up to each other after the game.

And like in August, the roadkill made an appearance. On the last half mile of the most boring drive ever, I hit an already-dead-and-bloodied fox. Perhaps that completes the cycle, and we can start again on Tuesday.

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