It was Swansea born poet Dylan Thomas who once told us “Do not go gentle into that good night”. On today’s evidence, Middlesbrough were in fact going gentle, just swap the word “night” for the Championship.
In fact, there was nothing poetic about Boro’s performance at The Liberty Stadium. Save for the odd flash of attacking fervour, the closest the game got to bright and inventive for Steve Agnew’s men was the sight of Adama Traore’s peroxide blonde Mohican. Not a player who particularly needs to encourage attention due to his eye-catching, if a little sporadic, style of play. However, as often noted before this weekend’s crunch clash with Swansea, he was Boro’s main threat once more and early on had Swansea players rattled.
Early cause for optimism
Middlesbrough’s starting line up gave an early cause for optimism for the away fans who’d made the 622 mile round trip to the South Wales. As well as Traore, Gaston Ramirez started as part of a 3 pronged attack, the tip of that being Alvaro Negredo. With Marten De Roon and Adam Clayton was Stewart Downing, who is enjoying a new lease of life in the post Karanka era. He would be the one to break forward to support the front 3 when Boro advanced forward. The last two weeks at Rockcliffe Park will have been spent trying to change the players’ mindset. Boro now had to learn to attack more frequently, more menacingly, as well as keeping the organisation at the back so expertly, if not a little too obsessively at times.
Boro knew they had to try and match Swansea for attacking threat and guile, of which The Swans possessed through one the Premier League’s leading lights this season, Gylfi Sigurdsson. Rarely kept quiet, they knew they had to nullify him to blunt their opponent’s cutting edge. Luckily for the Teessiders, striker Fernando Lllorente, was out injured.
Still, in his absence, Sigurdsson has enough to cause teams problems all by himself. However, it wasn’t Swansea’s playmaker who threatened early on.
Swans started well
The impressive left-back Martin Olsson bombed forward at any given opportunity. He clearly saw Antonio Barragan as one of the weak links in an under strength Middlesbrough defence. In the opening exchanges he spent his time down the left giving Spaniard a torrid time. An early effort flashed wide, although he seemed to be caught in two minds on whether to cross or shoot.
By the 10th minute Swansea were causing problems once more. Striker Jordan Ayew, bizarrely wearing the No.3 shirt, drew a decent save from Victor Valdes in the Boro goal. A shot from just outside the box calling the former Barcelona man into action. He was equal to the effort. It seemed to spark Agnew’s men in to life. They had started slowly, but surely, began to muster an attack or two of their own.
Traore was in the mood
Ramirez showed some neat footwork down the left, advancing in the box and pulling the ball back. It fell to Negredo whose first time effort was blocked, illegally you could argue, by Alfie Mawson with the ball striking the arm of the central defender. The ball found its way to Traore who crossed back into the box only for Downing to see his shot blocked too. The subsequent rebound was blazed over by Adam Clayton.
It was promising for Boro, and shortly after they were causing problems again.
Traore had found himself in the middle of the field and proceeded to embark on one of his trademark mazy runs. Within the space of a minute he was upended twice. Firstly by Leroy Fer, who was booked for his cynical challenge. He was then brought down by Mawson, again cynically, yet he escaped further punishment from referee Bobby Madley. For a brief period Swansea looked rattled. Like many other teams this season, they were struggling to contain Traore’s pace and trickery. He was in the mood it seemed, determined to do damage.
A wall of white was emerging every time Boro got forward, with Swansea getting as many men behind the ball as possible. Possibly spooked by Hull’s victory on Saturday, they looked nervy. Maybe it was due to them coming into the game on the back of two successive defeats to Bournemouth and The Tigers. The Premier League’s worse defence however was standing tall, perhaps unsurprisingly given they were up against the league’s least efficient attack. They rode the pressure and took back control of the game.
Swansea dominate as Boro struggle to contain them
By the midway point of the first half, Paul Clement’s side were well on top. Olsson, as well January singing Luciano Narsingh, causing Boro problems down the flanks. Fabio left himself with a tightrope to walk after stopping Narsingh in his tracks. The Dutchman was just that little too quick with this feet and led to Bobby Madley dishing out the second yellow card of the game to the Boro left-back.
The resulting free-kick caused panic at the back. Valdes gratefully gathering after a fortunate bounce in the six yard box. Sigurdsson’s delivery as usual was on point, the not so secret weapon had been deployed and there would be more to come.
With 10 minutes of the half remaining another of the Welsh sides January signings, Tom Carroll, had the home crowd on their feet. His half volley crashed just wide of the post, hitting the pole holding the netting up and rebounding into the side of the goal. For a brief moment it looked to have gone in.
At this point, what Boro didn’t need was an injury to one of their key players, yet that’s what they got. Ramirez, hindered by an earlier knock to his ankle, succumbed to his injury and was replaced shortly before half time by Rudy Gestede. A bit of a blow as, in flashes, Ramirez had looked close to his inventive best. As they did against Manchester United two weeks previously, Negredo and Gestede were partnered up top in a reshuffle of formation. Two up top has been the cry for a lot of the season by the Boro faithful, and now they had it.
Not that they had much of a chance to impress together as it was all Swansea. Two efforts by Fer and then Sigurdsson late in the first half left Boro glad to hear the half-time whistle. With 80% of the possession for the final 10 minutes of the half, there was only one team in it. The whistle came at the wrong time for Clement’s men; half time gave Agnew and his team time to regroup.
Boro had started to look sloppy; the high possession rate on Swansea’s part was in no small thanks to their opponent’s poor distribution. Wasteful with the ball, their passing had become slack at best. They were retreating within themselves as The Swans took the initiative and dominated.
Boro come back into the game.
Within minutes of the restart, Sigurdsson was at it again. A shot easily saved by Valdes in the centre of the goal. A warning that Swansea’s main man was just getting warmed up. Against the run of play though, Boro produced possibly their best piece of play in the game.
Ben Gibson, looking as commanding as ever and every inch an international, lead by example. Driving forward he found Negredo on the edge of the box. He then played in Traore inside the box, however he dragged his effort wide. Fabianski should’ve at least been tested.
After a let off in the Middlesbrough area, where an Olsson cross evaded everyone in a white shirt, Fabianski was eventually called into action. Negredo with his back to goal cleverly flicked an effort, but was thwarted by the onrushing Pole. It followed great work by that man Traore, who had clearly been practicing his deliveries. His cross finding Clayton at the back post, who then expertly knocked back for Negredo.
On the hour mark an accidental collision with Fer saw Fabio briefly out for the count as both players challenged in the air. Fabio thankfully resumed consciousness within seconds and seemed determined to carry on. That fighting spirit is what Boro needed. Unfortunately, but wisely given the obvious potential for serious injury, Fabio was withdraw, much to his dismay. Adam Forshaw replaced him in a move that saw Downing shift to left back.
Only moments later Sigurdsson was again stinging the palms of Valdes. His effort, destined for the Boro keepers’ top left corner, was well saved by what was fast becoming Boro’s key man along with Gibson. Boro had seemingly reverted to type and were beginning to take on Swansea pressure, a familiar sight for the long-suffering fans.
Niggly fouls break up flow of the game
At the midway point of the second half the game descended into a scrappy affair. Both sides, unable to keep possession for long enough, served up a frustrating period of play for the spectators. Misplaced pass after misplaced pass was accompanied by a barrage of niggly fouls. It was stop-start. Perhaps not helped by referee Madley’s penchant for the sound of his whistle. Negredo found himself in the book for a bad foul, probably made through sheer frustration, although not to be excused.
With 20 minutes remaining, the game snapped back into action. Swansea won a couple of corners within the space of a minute. The latter producing a header from Mawson, but his effort sailed over.
Boro continued with the lazy passing, losing the ball in dangerous areas. Whilst coping admirably with what Swansea had to throw at them, they were playing a risky game. The forays into the opposition half were now few and far between.
On one of those rare forages, Gestede and Negredo linked effectively for the first time. In http://gty.im/663848310 reality it was only a half chance. Negredo screwed wide on his weaker right foot, yet a headed knock down from Gestede showed that the signs are there for a decent partnership from now until the season’s end.
Back at the other end, Gibson was blocking Fer’s advance into the Boro penalty area, the ball striking his upper arm. Despite calls from the home crowd and every Swans player in the vicinity, referee Madley was having none of it, waving the penalty calls away. It would’ve been harsh on Gibson, but they’ve been given in the past and it was well worth the shout.
The pressure was starting to tell for Boro, who had Gestede booked for a wild challenge on Carroll. Luckily, Carroll avoided any significant contact, had there been any it could’ve been nasty.
Madley takes centre stage
The closing stages saw Swansea win a catalogue of free-kicks, much to the Boro players’ frustration. Bobby Madley drew anger from the away fans, as foul after foul was given against them. The flow of play was interrupted almost every minute.
Some were harsh on Boro, none more so than the decision to give a foul against Downing for a ‘challenge’ on Ayew. Replays showed Downing pulled out of the tackle, yet Ayew took the dive right in front of the referee’s assistant, who should’ve known better. There were would’ve been outrage if the free kick, on the right-hand side of the box, had come to anything. Thankfully for Boro it was cleared for a corner.
In the final 10 minites, Ayew was down easily again. This time on the edge of the box, in a central position ideal for Sigurdsson to weave his magic. His effort was deflected just wide via the raised arm of Forshaw who can count himself lucky he didn’t concede a penalty. There was definite movement towards the ball, yet Madley looked as if he might have evened things up by giving the midfielder the benefit of the doubt.
Further backing up that theory, Gestede flew in with another wild challenge. This time studs showing, yet the ref kept his cards in his pocket, issuing the Benin striker a final warning. A red card wouldn’t have been out of the question considering his earlier booking.
Leroy Fer then wasted a golden opportunity in the box. His neat turn and shot was deflected wide, when a better connection might’ve resulted in Boro’s defence finally being breached. Valdes was fouled in the corner that followed allowing Middlesbrough to take a breather.
Calamity Boro conspire to throw away big chances
In an incident that perhaps epitomises Boro’s season, a throw-in in a promising position level with Swansea’s 18 yard line was inexcusably wasted by Barragan. A foul throw, not even a contentious one. It was the stuff of Sunday League as he failed to master the most basic of professional football’s rules – the ability to throw a ball into play legally.
Swansea huffed and puffed a little more in the closing stages, Jack Cork going close, but it was Middlesbrough who had THE golden chance to snatch what would’ve been the most remarkable three points.
An uncharacteristic late surge forward saw Negredo receive the ball on the edge of the box. He sent in a delightful cross with the outside of his left foot. As the ball sailed over the despairing Swansea defence, Gestede appeared at the back post with what seemed like the simplest of finishes. A player known for his heading ability (you could argue it was what he was signed for), he connected with the ball well enough but somehow managed to direct wide of Fabianski’s near post. It goes down as a glaring miss, and in the context of the game, a devastating blow given just how valuable three points would’ve been. The confidence boost from that also would’ve sent them into Wednesday’s game at Hull with a new found optimism that they could escape relegation.
A fair result, but one that does nothing for either side
In reality, a draw was probably a fair result. For all Swansea’s domination and pressure, they failed to make it count against a resolute Middlesbrough defence. There’s no denying that had Boro won with that Gestede chance it would’ve been harsh, nigh on outrageous, for them to return to Teesside with maximum points. As it turned out, neither side could break the deadlock in a game that Paul Clement will no doubt take more positives from, Agnew on the other hand will be left facing questions the likes of which his old boss faced.
Boro looked blunt for the majority of the game. Slow in possession, they simply couldn’t get forward quick enough, looking laboured and frightened to get out of their own half at times. Their reliance on an outstanding defence, the 5th best in the league, can only take them so far. They have to add goals, with time quickly running out. Wednesday’s game at the KC Stadium takes on even more importance for them after today. Fail to win there and you struggle to see how they’re getting out of it.
For Swansea, they’ll be feeling the heat after Hull’s victory and would’ve dearly loved a win to restore the gap between the two teams. Whilst Boro failed to expose it often enough, it’ll be Swansea’s backline that come under intense scrutiny in the coming weeks. The worst defensive record in the league could get worse still when second placed Tottenham come to town on Wednesday. They were wasteful in front of goal against Boro, something they can ill afford to repeat against Spurs, where you have to feel they’ll be on the back foot for the majority of the game.
Swansea: Fabianski 7, Naughton 6, Fernandez 6, Mawson 7, Olsson 8, Fer 7, Cork 7, Carroll 7, Narsingh 7, Ayew 5, Sigurdsson 7.
Middlesbrough: Valdes 8, Barragan 7, Bernardo 6, Gibson 8, Fabio 6, de Roon 6, Clayton 6, Traore 8, Downing 6, Ramirez 6, Negredo 6.