Middlesbrough 1 - West Bromwich Albion 1
Even with two of the summer signings going straight into the starting XI, and a couple of positional swaps for existing personnel, the first game of this one had all the hallmarks of the previous season: absolutely nothing through the middle; a player on his wrong foot offering nothing down the left, and nothing from the central striker.
Wallace, the one player who looked like a shoo-in starter, did have an audacious attempt to lob the keeper from wide out on the right around the five minute mark, but other than that, Wilder's slick passing and quick moving Boro hadly gave the away side a sniff all half, and when the Albion, looking to construct something similarly slick down their right, coughed up the ball, it only took four or five pass and moves to pierce the covering formation, with the final pullback, from inside the box, finding an untracked player arriving to slot home, with just ten miutes gone.
It could, indeed should have been more, with a Boro player failing to connect with the end product of yet another great move when three yards out and central the most glaring of missed opportunites, but a completely outplayed Albion would only leave the field at half-time the one goal down.
Given there are now five substitutions allowed, I think most observers would have made one, if not more, changes at the break, but clearly Bruce had seem something that suggested to him that none were needed.
Suddenly though, it all changed. With Albion under yet more pressure down their right, Ajayi won a tackle in the right back area and looked to direct one towards Grant who, being isolated on the halfway line, headed it back into a contestable area, but Molumby's anticipation saw him take it of the toe of an opponent, and suddenly there were swather of Albion players streaming forwards. The Irishman curled a pass with the outside of his boot into the path of Wallace and the latter's pace took him clear of the Boro backline down the right, and, in an echo of the Boro goal, Swift was the untracked runner, arriving to slot the pullback away.
So our two new starters, three if you consider how many starts Molumby had actually had when everyone'd been available, had combined for the equaliser. Not quite sure that a goal on the break was what the manager had had in mind when leaving things as they were but maybe, in hindsight, we'd been so much under the cosh that that was the only way he might have seen us score.
However it happened, the goal did seem to wake the rest of the old players in the team up to the idea that they might be able to actually influence the game, and for the next twenty minutes or so, it was all Albion pressure, although the game had evened up a little by the time the sustitutions started.
The first of them, by Wilder, brought on a Finnish international striker, Marcus Forss who apparently had five developmental years at the Albion, before leaving for Brentford. For the Albion, we finally saw a fairly ineffective Phillips pulled from the left flank so that Diangana could finally get a run out there, and within ten minutes he'd gallop away down the left, and play in Wallace, however, when finding himself over on the left side, the latter chose not to pull it back to what appeared to be an unmarked Grant, but chose to shoot from a narrow angle instead: it turned out to be a poor choice.
With ten to go, Grant made way for Dike, and the latter certainly put himself about a bit during his cameo. As the last couple of minutes began, Bruce seemed to be readying Mowatt to replace one of the central two midfielders, perhaps in some kind of fresher legs to close it out swap, although when Molumby went down injured, TGH was seen to be stripping off, which might have suggested that Mowatt would have been coming on for Livermore. In the end though, Mowatt replaced Molumby and the game ended with the points split, which I felt was about right.
Overall, it's hard to judge if Dike will be the answer through the middle up front, until he starts scoring, although Wallace and Swift do look to offer a lot more "forward thinking", and capability, than players deployed in their roles last season, and with Yokuslu surely a starter once up to speed, this season may well be defined as yet another where we clearly have an XI that could go up, but the question will be whether we get to see that XI often enough, and if we do it will mean that a few of the recent regulars featuring less, to do so.
Slight worry, given that we let Kipre - who'd looked very good in the game shown before ours - go out on loan, leaving us with just three recognised centre-backs. was the sight of O'Shea going down twice towards the end with knocks that required treatment. Hopefully it'll just be down to a lack of game time.
A bit of a difficult one for me to report on as, due to the season starting so early thanks to the greedy and ludicrous World Cup in the desert, I found myself in Egypt trying to convince them that Albion versus the smog monsters was a better TV choice than Mo Salah’s Liverpool. Certainly one way to learn a few colloquial profanities.
So it was dodgy phone streams as there appeared to be no way for me to purchase and watch the game legally, and as a result I missed quite a few bits of the game.
Starting lineup - probably made sense given it came a week too soon for Dike to get his sharpness going and Grady did miss a bit of pre-season. Okay is the other obvious starter but I thought it interesting Bruce went with Livermore who had been ill. I sense, like me, he doesn’t trust or rate Mowatt all that much. TGH however would give us more energy and something like a forward pass.
Apart from the early Wallace effort we were way off it first half and could’ve gone in 2 or 3 down. Disjointed and with Grant offering nothing up top or link play we couldn’t get going. It showed up all the things we learned last season - we need another forward who can offer more all round, we need Dike, Grady and Okay in the team and we need genuine competition at right back because Furlong’s form over time with us has always been erratic for a player who has all the attributes but fails to put then together.
We were lucky then but an early goal in the 2nd half swung momentum our way and in being a bit braver with pressing we looked the team most likely to win it.
Our goal was lovely but the cutback and finish were no fluke - Swift holds back well consistently and Wallace knew where he’d be.
The introduction of subs improved us with Diagana putting a goal on a plate for us but Wallace couldn’t make the right contact on his wrong foot to either shoot or find Grant for a tap-in. Let’s credit him for getting up there to support in such a clever position that late in the game.
Dike also looked a real handful albeit a clumsy one - if he can sharpen up he’ll be a real asset.
Overall a point was fair. Wilder is a good manager and if we’d have appointed him when we had chance we’d probably be in the top flight. It’s a good result and that we got stronger in the game is a good sign.
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