Birmingham City 1 – Middlesbrough 4
Saturday 19 December 2020
And it all started so well. Blues fell to pieces allowing a Middlesbrough side to not have to do very much to take home a resounding win. Like at Cardiff the other night, most fingers will be pointed at the defence, this time with added goalkeeping blunders thrown in for good measure.
4-2-3-1 again, but with the worrying sight of Clayton and San Jose together in midfield. That partnership didn’t exactly scream the energy and running that took us out of our slump the other week. Karanka admitted his mistake at half time when Sunjic and Dutch Mike were restored to the team, but, by then, we were losing and chasing the game. In other changes Pedersen was restored after his ban, Hogan replaced Juke up front and Bela came in for Leko.
It was Bela who was most prominent as Blues started brightly. After an early Hogan header that went just wide and mounting pressure featuring the full-backs pressing forward, Blues took a deserved lead on 14.
After great work from Bela, twisting and tuning before getting a cross into the box the ball broke to one of those advanced full-backs, Colin, on the penalty spot and a good shot with his weaker left foot ended up in the net.
It was all looking sweet, two more chances for Hogan, and then suddenly and against the run of play two defensive errors in a couple of minutes turned the game on its head.
Blues asleep as a quickly taken free kick was fed into the left hand side of the box, Britt Assombalonga then did what Britt Assombalonga always does against Blues, flicking the ball past Etheridge as it was drilled towards the six yard box.
The second ‘Boro goal was even worse defensively as Clayton lost Saville who nudged the ball in at the near post. Blues were stunned by the turnaround and never recovered.
After half-time you felt that they could make a game of it if they scored next. Instead it was game over, as Etheridge chose that moment to do the worst thing he’s done in an otherwise impressive season. A routine corner was fumbled and the ball was in the back of the net, 3-1 to the visitors.
The Blues goalkeeper then compounded that error by diving over one from distance by Wing. 4-1 and it was turning into a bit of a nightmare.
Changes were made, a 4-4-2, but it had little effect. ‘Boro broke the game up in the way that Warnock’s teams do, not allowing Blues to get any momentum, and they saw the game out easily.
The other week we were praising the solidity and organisation of the team, particularly in defence, and our main concern was how we were going to score goals. In the last two games our defence has gone to pot and that has now become the problem area.
It is a dilemma as to whether Sunjic and Kief can play every game and remain effective with so many matches in such a short space of time. If they do need a rest, it should be to Gardner’s energy that we turn rather than Clayton and S-J as they simply don’t have the legs for it. You can’t afford to play the two of them together, in the same way as you can’t, in my opinion, play both Dean and Roberts together – too similar, both wanting to do the same job – especially when you have C-S, S-J and Friend who can add variation.
But while the defence is in the spotlight, we shouldn’t overlook the continued inconsistency of the wingers. For all his heroics on Wednesday, it was hard to believe that Sanchez was actually on the pitch today. Likewise Bela after his blistering start, but much of that was down to him simply not seeing the ball after the first twenty minutes.
Old timers, like me, will remember in Jim Smith’s promotion winning side the contribution of Alan Ainscow out wide. Not flash, very hard working, ten goals a season, same number of assists, seven out of ten most weeks. I think that you need that kind of consistency for balance in any team. Then you can afford a bit more of a gamble with the more mercurial talents like Sanchez and Bela on the other side, players who can win you a game but, equally, could be completely anonymous.
A dispiriting day to be a Blues fan. We seem to be very streaky this season, three good games, three bad, so maybe we’re due the three good. Here’s hoping.