We could not score but did not concede. Mind numbing, and then we went through another pattern of conceding late goals from the 80th minute onwards and painfully in extra time.
Where are we now?
Conceding goals in the first half, in the opening quarter of games in seven of our twelve matches. Obviously the first task in moving up the table is to alleviate that problem. There is no doubt that would be a priority in Monk’s mind before the players take to the field. You can almost hear him say the words ‘Do not concede, keep it tight, for the first part of the game. Unless players are wilfully disobedient and they are not, they will adhere to this tactical instruction except for in one aspect that being the opposition.
Monk is regarded as ‘thinking’ coach. He speaks in short, coherent sentences, there is the odd lapse of management -speak, ‘bumps in the road’ when we draw or lose but generally he is positive and upbeat.
So, what do we do?
We all accept the team is talented, experienced and knowledgeable about this division except it is not yet a team. This is a bigger task than it appears. Disparate personalities, varying strengths and unknown weaknesses may rise to the fore.
The backdrop to a patient, incremental accumulation of team building are results and fans. Football matches have to be won, so, whilst learning, experimenting and trialling, games have to be won, certainly not lost!!
Then we have the fans, commended for their loyalty, endurance, all knowing, glib and impatient for success. Their reasoning goes like this from a conversation at last week’s match.
First point is, team selection as understood by fans is based on a set of unknown assumptions, but assumptions transferred into concrete analysis. Such as ‘Ayala was rubbish, worst player on the pitch. Monk has got to bring Fry back in next week.’
Ayala, at best, had an indifferent game, mistimed headers, poor touch and misplaced passes one of which led to the second goal. On this criterion of reasoning, Ayala is dropped, then banished? Do we care about Ayala? We should, because the consequence of such action is Ayala loses his confidence further, his form deteriorates and he questions his future at the club. He becomes dispirited and unsettled. In contrast the braver decision is to keep Ayala in the team, allow him to play out and rediscover his form and rekindle his partnership with Gibson. This might be a simplistic analysis; footballers know their place in the team is in effect, a weekly loan arrangement. Nothing guaranteed.
Second, being a manager/coach means you have to weigh up these considerations for each player, every week, focusing on short term, medium and long-term consequences. Instant change leads to disruption and potential disharmony within the team and the squad. Where we are in the table is a reflection of the conundrums Garry Monk is facing in each position within the team. Such as Fabio or George at left back. Who would you choose if you like both? Midfield. Where do you begin? Attack: Wow!! That is a minefield of permutations and decision-making.
What is to be done?
We have a team of experienced, highly regarded players in the division. The view in Barnsley where I live is that Boro are the best team to have visited Oakwell. We have two players for every position, an embarrassment of riches. As a team we have pace, width and proven goal scorers.
What surely could go wrong?
There are some superficial and tentative explanations First, that precious, indefinable quality, team spirit and bonding. Is it evident? Not sure, Traore‘s misdemeanours do not help.
What formation/system are we playing?
Nothing agreed, nothing settled. Monk is an adventurer in this respect against Barnsley it was 4-4-2. Is this a problem? Yes, if players are slow to adapt and unclear about their roles. The evidence on this is patchy, though it was hard to pin down what role Braithwaite was playing last Saturday.
These thoughts, questions, cross my mind as I watched the match last weekend. In all honesty I do not have a clear answer. Under Karanka, it was straightforward, defensive rigour, counter attack, little or no creativity. As fans we yearned for something different. Under Monk the team is more open, more fluid, occasionally expansive, creative and attack oriented, good footballing qualities that the majority of fans want to see. Then we look at the table. We are stuttering, we are in neutral, when we draw it feels like a loss and worst of all the fear we may become adrift of the top six.
This leads me to ask, If I were Garry Monk?
Remain steadfast and keep to the principles, values and beliefs about the kind of football you want your team to play. Address why we are conceding goals early in matches accepting you cannot coach out mistakes. That will happen in any football match, but you can work on alertness, concentration and focus
We have not reached a situation recently where we have either been level or ahead in games. Too often we are retrieving games and becoming reactive rather than proactive.
Regarding personnel, persevere with Ayala, the midfield was in control and showed authority but at times it is too square and lacks pace. Baker and Howson are good alternatives. In attack we have Assambalonga as a focal point, an asset we do not fully exploit. Bamford is a better option because he is more subtle and unorthodox than Fletcher. Gestede is a physical presence who will occupy defenders. Braithwaite is intelligent, probing and vital to the cause.
All in all, Monk has at his disposal the players with the ability, skills and experience to get Boro promoted.
As a club we cannot afford the predictable, knee jerk reaction already uttered, calling for the Manager to go. Similarly we cannot call or clamour for players to be displaced if they make a mistake or a formation uprooted because we draw or lose.
What we have to do is to keep soldiering on, by which I mean applying those dull words, patience, perseverance, trust and repeated effort until the mistakes dissolve away. Then our expectation that the team reaches that level of ability and consistency should be met.
We are not there - YET!