That will teach me to be all optimistic, won’t it? On a night where the pundits would have you believe that 18 points were at stake, Latics ended up bottom of the pile, giving Boro a leg-up on the way and leaving the fans with very little to smile about. That Steve Bruce can point to an improved second-half performance and claim his side were value for a draw is scant consolation when you’ve seen your midfield and defensive torn to shreds in an opening 20 minutes that should have seen the home side out of sight.
Tuncay may have impressed people this season, but with the finishing on show here it’s easy to see why Gareth Southgate is looking to break the Boro transfer record on this Alves chap.
The signing that Bruce is hoping will resolve Latics’ fortunes in front of goal, Marlon King, started this game. The decision as to who should make way for him proved too much for the manager who instead plumped for an unfamiliar 4-3-3 line up that may well have played its part in the defeat. I’ve talked before about the dangers of not protecting Kevin Kilbane and here we were in a position where no-one appeared quite sure about who should be covering on the left when we were defending.
Whether it was this confusion or sheer lack of numbers that did it, the Latics midfield looked weaker than at any other time under Steve Bruce. It’s a little early to say for certain, but can I book myself on the ‘we should never have sold Landzaat’ list, just in case?
With the midfield leaving the defence exposed, Tuncay and Aliadiere spent the first quarter of the game showing just where Latics weakness lies by pulling Bramble and Scharner all over the place to leave gaping holes in front of Chris Kirkland. Luckily for Latics they only managed to take advantage of on of the four times one of the pair was left with only Kirkland to beat.
From the Latics perspective, it was clear that no-one was quite sure how to handle the new formation and even when Bruce tried to get them in a more familiar shape, with all three strikers taking turns on the left wing, it did little to settle the ship. Things finally settled down after a half time chat and even more so after the introduction of Koumas, for King, after 55 minutes. However the tanker was well set on course by that stage and no amount of huffing and puffing was going to turn it around.
There’s some truth in Bruce’s claims that Latics should as much fight in the second half as they have since he took the helm, but fight is not always enough. Despite the full time stats pushing the balance in Latics favour, none of the chances they were presented with were as clear cut as those they gifted the home team in the opening exchanges.
The closest that the visitors came to levelling things off was a Heskey header, well saved by Swartzer, with a notable mention for Koumas’ half volley that may (or more likely may not) have been going in but for a finger tip save from the Aussie. The worse thing about the result is what it will do for morale, the team may be able to put this one behind them and move forward but the fans will have taken a big knock from the night’s events. Instead of sitting pretty at the top of our group of teams, we are not sat in the bottom three. Instead of having six teams within a win’s reach of each other, there are only five.
And then on to Wednesday, where surely Latics next opponents, West Ham, would get a result to put them on the back foot for Saturday. Unfortunately not, although the evidence from our own, New Year, visit to Anfield should have taught us better than to hope. I finished my preview of this game with the thought that if we didn’t succeed at the Riverside then we could start again on Saturday. Well, that’s still the case, but the job has been made a whole lot harder and any thoughts of a win are more hope than expectation. Fingers crossed, eh?
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