Middlesbrough prove money can’t buy success
NORWICH CITY 1, MIDDLESBROUGH 0: Kris Boyd is said to be earning around �30,000 a week playing for Middlesbrough. Strike partner – the word strike is used loosely here – Leroy Lita won't have come cheap either.
Which is odd considering that a group of Norwich City defenders who between them probably have to get by with a lot less than Boyd earns, kept the pair of them in their pockets to such an extent that it took almost an hour and a half before the visitors even looked like scoring on Saturday. By then it was too late: City had done enough to take all three points, courtesy of a first-half goal by Simeon Jackson, a summer arrival from Gillingham.
The reason it's worth pointing it out is that it highlights the importance of player selection – signings and the usage of.
Middlesbrough skipper Gary O'Neil bemoaned the lack of pace and creativity that Gordon Strachan had brought to the club before his departure a week ago. 'He's a good man who worked hard,' he said. Lots of football managers are, but if you sign the wrong players, it's a struggle.
Boro have had plenty of money to play with – parachute payments of more than �12m last season, their first since dropping out of the Premier League, and another �16m this season. Mere mention of spending such sums here would probably have Paul Lambert choking on his porridge.
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Instead, he has shopped around and brought in players that have been on his radar well before he came to Carrow Road, among them Saturday's goal scorer, and Saturday's best player, Elliott Ward. The centre-half was unwanted by Coventry last season, but performances for City make you wonder whether he had a masquerading doppelganger in the Midlands. His return after suspension was a huge boost to City, who have never been labelled a one-man team but who, like anyone else, feel it when a top player is absent. Who wouldn't?
Ward has a composure, a desire to play the football rather than the man, a touch of class that is pleasing on the eye. And he's highly effective too – he sees the shot coming and more often than not blocks it. He sees the pass coming, and spoils its execution. And invariably, when he clears the ball out of defence, he finds a team-mate.
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Leon Barnett alongside him is a different animal – a good stopper, without the same finesse. But he too is an example of Lambert's special art of identifying players.
How many of those he has signed, permanent or on loan, have been misfits? The answer is none. Zak Whitbread's name may have crossed your mind, but it's hardly anyone's fault he is injured.
Lambert did what he said he would and freshened it up, resting Wes Hoolahan and Korey Smith and bringing in Anthony McNamee and David Fox. The important word there is 'resting' – not 'dropping'. Not many managers would leave Hoolahan out of their side, but Fox – starting a league game for the first time since the opening day – slotted in nicely.
Perhaps it was no surprise that the changes worked, although the next trick of changing the formation was a double-shuffle that many managers wouldn't have been able to pull off. Resting the diamond and going with the 4-4-2 formation proved City are no one-trick ponies.
Again, Lambert's choice of players to do the job worked.
Middlesbrough's most certainly didn't. On paper, they are a good-looking side: Boyd and Lita up front, a midfield led by O'Neil and including Nicky Bailey and the �2m Kevin Thomson, a defence including David Wheater and Stephen McManus
They started well enough, knocking the ball around for a while, but City didn't take too long in settling. Ward could have opened the scoring after 10 minutes when he put a snapshot over after half-hearted appeals for handball against Wheater, while Jackson might have done better than scoop a square ball by the impressive Russell Martin over from six yards.
Martin and Steven Smith were doing well from the full-back positions, linking with the players in front of them – McNamee and Simon Lappin respectively. It was McNamee whose crossing troubled Boro – he has the ability to get his foot wrapped around the ball to whip it in.
On 25 minutes he evaded young Luke Williams and put a ball in the danger area which was half-cleared and fell to Andrew Crofts, whose shot came off the inside of the far post and back into the grateful arms of keeper Jason Steele.
McNamee's technique proved decisive just before half-time when, with possession deep on the right, he was allowed to get in a cross to the back of the six-yard box where Grant Holt slid in and knocked it right to Jackson, who made no mistake from three yards. Boro claimed offside, although there weren't sufficient TV replays to prove their claim.
It was a goal which, presumably, managers enjoy: recalled winger puts in perfect cross, finds centre forward who sets up strike partner to score.
It was no more or less than City deserved: real scoring chances were limited, but City were the better side. Boro lacked an urgency which would prove costly.
That the back four performed so well is no doubt helped by the protection that Crofts and Fox afforded it: in the second half they were much busier soaking up Boro pressure that just lacked something at the end of it. City were pushed back, but Boro had no width and Martin and Smith were rarely beaten around their outside.
Perhaps bearing in mind what happened against Hull and, in midweek, Crystal Palace, a single goal lead was a nervous place to be – but Boro didn't do what the aforementioned managed, and not until substitute Scott McDonald side-footed the ball wide in time added on did they ever look like it.
Their caretaker manager, Steve Agnew, spoke afterwards of wanting the side to play football – which is probably why they didn't commit their first foul until the 53rd minute – but he, too, recognised the lack of pace and cutting edge.
We all know that Lita is a better player than his weekend efforts, but if you don't get your personnel right down to the 20th man in your pecking order, it isn't going to work. Boro are a good team on paper; put them on grass and they lack Championship qualities.
City had that in abundance on Saturday: without being 5-0 flash, they were effective, solid, a team. And that wins games.