In the opening 55 minutes of last night’s game it looked like, for the first time under Chris Wilder, that this Boro team were feeling sorry for themselves.
Seemingly suffering a hangover from the disappointing defeat to Bristol City last weekend, the type of hangover that takes several days for you to shake off and make yourself feel human again, Boro found themselves 1-0 down to a team that hadn’t scored in five games.
They’d dominated possession for the first 20 minutes but had been limited to a Riley McGree shot from outside the box that went along the floor and straight at Sam Johnstone,
There wasn’t the zip in the passes or composure on the ball that the Red Army have become accustomed to since Wilder came in and the back three were starting to bypass the midfield and fire long balls into Folarin Balogun and Aaron Connolly.
Neither of them are here to make the ball stick up top at the best of times, never mind when competing against two horrible beanpoles like Semi Ajayi and Kyle Bartley. Balogun in particular looked flustered by the physicality of the Baggies’ defensive duo and repeatedly gave the ball away when trying to evade them.
Some of the inconsistency in Boro’s play was down to the shitshow being played out by referee Michael Salisbury. To call Salisbury incompetent would be an insult to the shit refs in this league who at least try to hide their lack of ability.
The standard of officiating in the EFL is beyond a joke at this point and there needs to be a serious effort made to overhaul the monitoring of officiating.
Conor Townsend clearly fouled Isaiah Jones when he pulled the Boro wing-back down in the first 10 minutes as Jones brought down Paddy McNair’s cross field ball. It was a foul and it should have been a yellow card to boot.
However, that is no excuse for the goal that Wilder’s side conceded on the 28th minute or for their reaction to it. Anfernee Dijskteel’s throw-in wasn’t even aimed at a red shirt, Jonny Howson misdirected his header while Dael Fry mistimed his jump to allow Andy Carroll in at the back which eventually led to Jayson Molumby turning the ball into the net.
From then on, until the 55th minute, West Brom looked like the only team capable of adding to the scoreline. Jones was being quietened without being able to call upon his telepathic understanding with Matt Crooks. Boro were flat, wasteful and looked out of ideas.
It’s a good job then that Chris Wilder is really, really good at his job.
The gaffer allowed the lads ten minutes of the second half to convince him they could get back into the game, but after seeing that they were still struggling to get a foothold in the contest, Wilder swapped Neil Taylor and Balogun out for Andraz Sporar and Duncan Watmore.
This meant a switch to a more aggressive 3-4-3 setup with Marcus Tavernier taking over the left wing-back role and Connolly, Watmore and Sporar leading the forward line.
The introduction of “Andy” and Dunc reenergised the team as they chased and harassed a West Brom backline that didn’t want to hold onto the ball, while it also allowed Connolly to drift further out into the channels instead of being stuck backing into Bartley and Ajayi to win headers.
Stretching the defence like that gave McGree, who showed exactly why he was brought to the club in January with some wicked feet and drive, and Howson more space to play in and move the ball around.
That helped to suck Alex Mowatt and Molumby into the centre of the pitch and disrupt West Brom’s flat, deep setup that had frustrated Boro in the first half.
It also meant that Adam Reach had to drop further back into midfield to take away one of West Brom’s out-balls and left Andy Carroll twiddling with his daft ponytail when the Baggies cleared the ball.
The pièce de résistance of Wilder’s well-timed tweaks was moving Tav to left wing-back. Not only did it pin Grady Diangana back, who’d started to show some of the talent he’d displayed in the 19/20 season, it meant that Boro had a genuine threat down both flanks and there’ll now be a clamour to see the 22-year-old play there on Saturday.
Those three key areas, brought about by Wilder’s changes, were exploited as Boro turned the game on its head.
They were able to ragdoll West Brom’s shape back and forth which resulted in two fantastically well-worked, eye-catching team goals.
As important as system, shape and all that nerdy stuff that Wilder has made a little bit more exciting to talk about in the past few months is, neither goal was without flashes of individual brilliance.
Riley McGree’s slide rule pass into Tav sliced open the West Brom defence and Tav showed brilliant composure to find Paddy McNair with a perfectly weighted cutback instead of hammering it across goal and hoping it would be turned in. Dijksteel had even ball rolled and shimmied his way past Townsend on the opposite flank in the build up.
It certainly looks like Dijksteel has been having a word or two with Isaiah Jones on how to best spin a man out of his boots because he did it again 9 minutes later when he twisted and turned past two Baggies players before releasing Isaiah to do Isaiah things.
The Dijksteel-Crooks-Jones triangle might be the best collaboration in the world at the moment but Jones and the corridor of uncertainty runs it close. EVERY SINGLE TIME.
Jones makes it ridiculously hard to defend his crosses by placing them exactly where defenders don’t want them and in doing so makes them so simple to convert for his team-mates.
There was a touch of fortune to the second goal as Jones’s cross could’ve gone anywhere had Duncan Watmore got a more decisive touch on it. Thankfully the ball sat up nicely for the oncoming Marcus Tavernier to cap off the quick-fire comeback.
I’m made up for Tav. Genuinely fucking delighted. The majority of the criticism he’s received this season has been completely unwarranted. Of course, he needs to add an extra edge to his game but he’s ace. We are a far worse team without him and he absolutely loves this place. He might of been born in Dirty Leeds and played for the daft Geordies at youth level yet he’s one of us.
From then on, it was totally Boro’s game and an additional bit of quality or a nonchalant attitude towards the need to safeguard the three points would’ve seen them extend the lead with a number of quick breaks late on.
Chris Wilder though will have been more than happy to secure the win and to see another show of resilience from his team after a poor first half and the disappointment of the Bristol City game.
The commentators frequently mentioned that there’s “a feeling around Teesside that this could be a special season” and they’ve nailed it.
There’s a confidence and a belief amongst the players that they can win any game at any time which has flooded into the stands. It might not be this year that “something” happens but we’ve put ourselves on the right path regardless and a truckload of credit has to go to Wilder for that.
He’s brought an exciting, front-foot way of playing to the club and helped to reset the mentality and resolve of the squad. Last night was the clearest indication yet that Chris Wilder is a cut above at this level. His perfectly timed and executed tweaks flipped the script of the game almost instantly.
How many times over the years have we watched a Boro team that is clearly crying out for fresh legs or a change in approach mid-game be left to sort things out for themselves until it’s too late? There is no danger of that with Wilder.
He made a fool of a household name like Steve Bruce, who bafflingly didn’t make a single change to counteract Wilder’s moves. It wasn’t just checkmate in the chess match of tactics, the board and pieces were already back in the box while Bruce gawped dumbfounded at the arbiter.
Kieran Scott deserves credit too. Without his influence and authority at the club, I don’t think we make the proactive decision to snatch Wilder up ahead of other clubs.
There’s an alternate reality where we refuse to pull the trigger on Neil Warnock and Chris Wilder ends up facing us last night in the away dugout for West Brom. He may have ended up trying to fight relegation with Watford, Everton or the black and white shite up the road (shudders).
I’m just glad that alternate realities and multiverses belong in Marvel films because it means that Chris Wilder is the manager of Middlesbrough Football Club and Chris Wilder is really, really good at his job.
Photo Credits: Alex Dodd-Camera Sport, Tom Banks (@banks_photo), Teesside Live/The Gazette, Middlesbrough F.C.