With West Brom’s unfortunate defeat at White Hart Lane yesterday, the Baggies are all but relegated with 28 points from 35 games leaving them 6 points behind Hull City – with the Yorkshiremen having a game in hand. Barring a miracle, Tony Mowbray’s outfit will be playing Championship football next season, but who will join them?
Sitting second bottom, Middlesbrough are in deep, deep trouble: 3 points from safety, a disjointed side bereft of confidence and a misfiring winger with perhaps one eye on a summer move to Spurs. Of course, there is a very obvious scapegoat in £12m man Afonso Alves, whose goals to games ratio (worse than 1 in 4) is quite frankly shocking for a fox-in-the-box, but it would be unfair to blame all of Boro’s goalscoring woes on the Brazilian – his swift penalty area movement and cool finishing is not suited to Stewart Downing’s crossing from deep, as diagonal crosses towards Alves are wasted due to his lack of aerial ability – when Yakubu and Mark Viduka were with the Teesiders, Downing could cross high balls from a position level with the corner of penalty area safe in the knowledge that Viduka and Yakubu could compete in the air, but with Tuncay Sanli and Alves on the end of his crosses, there is no presence and most crosses from that area are dealt with comfortably. On the other flank, Jeremie Aliadiere strikes me as someone who is uncomfortable playing on the right, and while he does a moderately effective job – works hard, the odd run – he neither seems to like holding his position out there, nor offer much in the way of penetration, and so, if I was Southgate I would seriously consider playing Marvin Emnes from that position, as not only does he offer pace and will look to get in behind the full back, he will complement Downing and offer the kind of variation that has been lacking from Middlesbrough’s play.
At the back they have not been too bad – David Wheater has been steady if unspectacular, and Robert Huth seems to be at home at this level – but the midfield has been another area for concern: a central midfield pairing of Matthew Bates and Gary O’Neil is very industrious, and against Manchester United yesterday they played very well in the first half, hustling the champions effectively and limiting United to few chances, but they don’t offer something different that a team needs at this level – they can pass a ball over 5-10 yards comfortably, and Boro keep possession relatively well, but they aren’t the best at threading passes through defences for the mobile Tuncay, King and Alves to run onto – therefore, I would definitely play Julio Arca, especially for a crunch, must win game like the forthcoming match at St James’ Park.
Their opponents a week on Monday, Newcastle, are probably in worse shape than their neighbours: While they are a place above Boro, they have scored just one goal in 5 games under Alan Shearer, and while there has been a lot of fuss about their crucial ‘winnable games at home’, they have won just 4 games at home all season and there squad is ageing, inbalanced and desperately lacking in confidence.
To me, this Newcastle side looks like a really good side… about 5 years ago. Players like Duff, Butt, Owen, Viduka and Smith have all had careers ravaged by injury and are not even nearly the same force that they were circa 2004, when they were all Champions League quality and above. Like Middlesbrough, their midfield is a hub of activity and industry, but none of Butt, Smith or Nolan are ever going to unlock a Premier League defence with a flash of quality or a clever through ball on a regular basis, and with their one truly exciting creative talent, Jonas Gutierrez, not really sure of his best position, Newcastle have struggled to feed their talented strikers – Martins, Viduka, Owen, (less so) Carroll and Lovenkrands - on a regular basis and have struggled to score consistently. Their players have plenty of endeavour, but, as shown so palpably by Portsmouth on Monday, they do not threaten defences consistently, so when chances come their way they are snatched at – as they may never come again.
Defensively, Fabricio Coloccini is far too inconsistent at this level, and while at Old Trafford and Stamford Bridge he has orchestrated fabulous defensive displays, on a number of other occasions he has let his team down with Cacapa-esque moments of madness to concede crucial goals. Sebatien Bassong looks like a talented defender, but there is only so well that he can play alongside the inconsistent Coloccini and a left winger – Duff – playing at left back. Habib Beye has been injured quite a lot, and his reassuring presence has been negated by Shearer’s tinkering – perhaps necessary tinkering – and he has struggled to assert himself at the back. Steve Harper strikes me as Shay Given-lite, as he is a very good shot-stopper, but is perhaps not big enough to be effective at dealing with crosses – top class keepers are not sat on a bench for nearly 20 years.
Hull have collapsed. With 1 win in 18 games, they have slipped dramatically to the relegation zone, being just 3 points above the North-East clubs in 18th and 19th. When confidence is high, poor players can play above their station and overperform consistently, but when confidence is low, the same players can play at below their normal levels. The latter is happening to Hull. Players like Dean Marney, Ian Ashbee and Andy Dawson were extremely effective during wins at the Emirates and White Hart Lane in early autumn, but with Geovanni’s influence waning, these players (especially Ashbee and Marney) are having to take on more responsibilty and create goalscoring chances for the likes of Manucho and Cousin, and they aren’t good enough. Hull aren’t conceding too many goals, a testament to Michael Turner and Matt Duke, who have both shone this season, but The Tigers have scored just two goals in 5 games, and have lost crucial away games to Sunderland and Middlesbrough. Phil Brown, hailed as a ‘breath of fresh air’ earlier in the season, is now being widely ridiculed for his dodgy tactics and his dodgier fake tan, but he may still keep them up – a win next week against Stoke would give them a fighting chance, but as it is now, I would fancy the winner of Boro/Toon next Monday to leap-frog Hull at some point before the end of the season, leaving the Yorkshire club in the relegation zone.
Sunderland are not out of it either. Pathetic performances at West Brom and against Everton have left them 4 points outside of the relegation zone, and with key players – Cissé, Jones, Richardson and Malbranque – being distinctly out of form, they will be in trouble if they do not find at least a couple of draws out of the games against Bolton, Portsmouth and Chelsea. With the players at Sbragia’s disposal however, they should just about be safe, as players like Andy Reid and Kieran Richardson are very capable of producing something when it matters.
As for my Two Cent’s Worth, I think that Newcastle and Hull are looking the most likely to go, as both team’s inability to find wins from anywhere may be their achilles heel, especially with their respective run-ins both being pretty difficult. Then again, who’s to say that Middlesbrough will ever score again?