Southgate powerless to break rotten Boro's fall

Click to follow
The Independent Football

"You're going down with the Shearer," they sang. The Manchester United travelling choir gave an extraordinary rendition of their greatest hits here yesterday, old-time favourites such as, "We all live in a George Best world" and "Yip Jaap Stam is a big Dutch Man" even getting an outing. But there was special zest – and perhaps accuracy – reserved for the mention of Alan Shearer.

Whether the Stretford Enders are correct about Newcastle remains to be seen, but it feels fairly certain that whoever else goes down, they were right about Middlesbrough. Uefa Cup finalists this month three years ago, Boro look like a Championship team.

This was not a performance that encouraged any other sense. This was no repeat of the sort of euphoric display that brought Boro back from the exit in the quarters and semi-finals on the way to Eindhoven in 2006. That seems like a different era already and Gareth Southgate (right) could point to the squad personnel then and argue that it was. Of yesterday's team only Stewart Downing started against Seville that night in the Netherlands.

Southgate did. He was a powerful influence on the pitch then, but it is the transition to the dugout that he and Shearer have to negotiate. Powerlessness is bound to be felt at times and yesterday was surely one of those days for Southgate. "Flat" was a word he used. "The players have had a chasing for 60 minutes."

The fans had been asked to produce a "cauldron-like" atmosphere but even the biggest crowd of the season requires some fuel. Too busy chasing, though not hard enough, Middlesbrough gave their followers nothing.

Southgate was mildly irritated at this suggestion afterwards. "How do you show fight?" he asked, "getting wired into people? It is very difficult to do against a team like United. In theory you want that to happen, the reality is that on a warm day they pick you off."

In the circumstances, the solitary Boro shot of note deserves to be reported. It came from Jérémie Aliadière on 22 minutes from a neat pass by Marlon King, but Aliadière has only scored two League goals all season and his left-foot effort was booted clear by United's stand-in keeper Ben Foster.

Nemanja Vidic, sliding in, had done just enough to unsettle Aliadière, a detail that had some pertinence three minutes later. But, briefly, the Riverside had believed that Southgate's young team could do something here. Then a United corner. Ryan Giggs took it and after a couple of passes, Giggs finished it. Whereas Vidic had scrambled to worry Aliadière, David Wheater arrived too late to destabilise Giggs. The shot raced through Wheater's legs and into the bottom corner.

Boro survived a poor Brad Jones error on the stroke of half-time to make it to the interval one down. But six minutes on, Wheater and the wooden Robert Huth were wrong-footed by Wayne Rooney's simple pass and Ji-Sung Park buried the second. "Bad goals," was Southgate's description.

No Boro player had got close enough to an opponent on either and the disturbing feature for Teesside was that there was no glimmer of a home revival. Far too many of Southgate's players spent the next 40 minutes going through the motions.

Statisticians can point to Boro's 25 goals from 35 matches – the lowest in the Premier League – as the definitive reason for Boro's woes, but the absence of hard work needs to be discussed and addressed when the inevitable inquest comes.

The club's videotape man should also put together a sequence of Rooney, Federico Macheda and even Dimitar Berbatov tracking back to fight for possession – and for their colleagues. On two occasions Macheda and Carlos Tevez journeyed back 60 yards.

Boro, meanwhile, passed and missed. On came Afonso Alves, all £12 million of him. As a last act, and as a symbol of a season that has failed to deliver on early promise – inflated hope admittedly – Alves's injury-time free-kick smacked straight into Row Z was appropriate.

At least the results coming in from elsewhere did not reinforce Teesside's depression. Next it is a spine-tingling trip to St James' Park tomorrow week. It is hardly a fortress but Boro go there without a point from their last 10 away games.

"We have to go to Newcastle now and deal with the atmosphere," Southgate said. "The reality is that we have to win. In some respects it's a last throw of the dice."

Comments