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New-look Boro serve up plenty of home coomfort; The bigger picture.

Byline: Anthony Vickers

OUT OF the mists of misfiring mediocrity that shrouded the Riverside last term, the shape of a new-look Boro side is starting to emerge.

Last season's stuttering and frustrating home form was the stumbling block that cost Boro a place in the play-offs - and possibly, at a push, beyond that - and it also undermined the fragile confidence of a jittery crowd that only saw them on home turf when they were so often routinely shackled.

Tony Mowbray's unbalanced inherited team had the skill set to hit on the break away and had a superb record on the road.

Away-day stats were of the order that would normally secure promotion.

Yet the crucial lack of a bit of lock-picking creativity, a bit of nous and a cutting edge showed on Teesside when well-drilled but limited sides regularly came to the Riverside, set out with two rigid banks of four and shut up shop.

Boro lacked the pace and width to get behind teams who dug in deep and lacked the ingenuity to cut them open with a killer ball.

Usually the visitors got a point and sometimes three and while Boro's record at home wasn't woeful - they only lost five all term and not at all until November to West Ham, and that was their first defeat in 19 - they drew far too many games and the leaden scripted predictability of proceedings sapped the spirit of supporters and drained the momentum of the early promotion surge.

But Mowbray - more aware of the pressing problem than anyone - has spent the summer engineering a radical structural change in his squad in a bid to build a team that more accurately reflects his football philosophy.

Ten new signings and the promotion of a raft of talented teenagers to the first team squad have given Boro a new look: faster, sharper, more hungry and with a flash of teeth but still committed to and capable of playing a patient passing game on the deck and using space and width.

From day one, Mowbray has talked of his ambition to play like Barcelona and at times that has seemed far-fetched.

But while we may not have arrived at the birth of a Teesside tiki-taka, the last two home games have at least seen the faint outline of an eye-catching and exciting style start to loom into view.

Two home games in a row have served up some polished and pulsating football that has encouraged and entertained. What more can you ask for as a supporter than to go home buzzing from the result and from the performance? In the space of a few days we have seen two wins and five goals - a quarter of last season's tally for both. Boro won eight games and scored just 22 goals in 23 laboured games.

We have already seen more memorable net-busters than in the whole of a largely anonymous previous campaign.

The midweek clash with Burnley served up three cracking goals. Or one very good one and two mouth-watering strikes to liven up what was for long spells a scrappy and tense Championship slugfest.

But, perhaps more importantly, we have also seen some genuine signs of a new progressive approach evolving.

Passing, probing, crisp interchanging, neat interchanging, width, pace, tempo, sustained pressure, shots flying in from all angles... it has been a pleasure to watch.

Against Crystal Palace, for an hour we got a glimpse of the side Mowbray is building.

The exhilarating first-half display was as good a 45-minute spell as I can remember at the Riverside for many a year.

There was some exquisite, high-tempo passing, fluid movement on and off the bal enterprising, attacking footba utilising both flanks.

ll and all Both full-backs pushed forw quickly and confidently to ad width and numbers to the at And while last year the progr would have halted 30 yards o the new assertive outfit repea broke beyond the defensive trenches to get to the by-line fire in inviting crosses high a low towards a posse of team-mates making penetrat ward dd real tack. ress out, atedly and nd ting runs into the box. It was fantastic to watch.

And the shots rained in - especially from instant hero Adam Reach who, as he showed against Burnley, is not scared to have a crack from anywhere.

Twice the perky, pink-booted prodigy sent in stinging rifled drives from distance that were fumbled behind. He has the look of a player who will hit double figures, given his head.

There were some excellent individual performances from the new signings.

George Friend had a storming first half in his best game yet. After a jittery start at Bury and Barnsley, he has grown into the team and he looked far more solid at the back against Burnley and showed a more attacking bent in the Palace game with a series of penetrating bursts down the left to play telling crosses and neat short balls in.

It was his run and cut inside that earned a free-kick for Zemmama to squeeze home the second.

Josh McEachran was again impressive, He had a fantastic debut and showed against Palace it was no fluke as he again linked up well and showed an impressive range of perfectly weighted passes into feet. He gave away the penalty but we'll forgive him that.

It won't go down well with the #critics but Justin Hoyte - a kind of new signing - was superb again. He was solid and determined at the back and put in a masterclass of attacking full-back play, always offering an outlet and putting in some killer crosses.

Jason Steele was also impeccable and, despite being a spectator for almost an hour, made two great saves when the pressure was on. He deserves some credit too.

There was a lot of attention on new boy Ishmael Miller. He had come in for some heavy pre-emptive chuntering from the Chickenrun but he did well.

Certainly he showed signs of being exactly the kind of physical presence that does damage in this league.

Obviously he lacked sharpness and his two best chances in the box went begging as defenders got their tackles in a fraction before he could pull the trigger but he added a robust presence and a few times showed a turn of pace. He will add something to the mix.

Of course, it wasn''t all good news. The familiar late jitters and the psychological retreat after Palace clawed one back with a cheaply conceded penalty were a worry.

That involuntary shrinking to the 18-yard line is a dark self-destructive shadow of doubt that needs to be addressed swiftly if the potential of this season and this team is to be realised.

But this is the Championship.

That is what you get. Teams are not ruthless or dominant for the full 90 minutes.

And this time that germ of fragility wasn''t punished. Last term Palace would have got a stoppage-time leveller. Or worse. Holding on for the win is a major step forward.

So, two home wins in a row and the angst and frustration of the still-born season opener at Barnsley if not forgotten has been mitigated and put into context. It has been a decent start with goals and performances to encourage.

If this fledgling team continues to make progress and take shape as it has over the past week, then this can be a fantastic season.

Bring it on.


TURNING ON THE STYLE: Above, Boro's impressive midfielder Josh McEachran zips away from Palace Picture by IAN COOPER GOAL JOY: Left, Merouane Zemmama's effort is in the net to put Boro 2-0 ahead during the Championship match against Crystal Palace at the Riverside HERE WE GO: Above left, Boro's Seb Hines celebrates after scoring the opening goal at the Riverside against Crystal Palace on Saturday. Above right, Hines climbs high to win the ball against Palace's Owen Garvan Pictures by IAN COOPER FIRST TO THE BALL: Left, Boro's Merouane Zemmama in action TRYING HIS LUCK: Right, Boro''s new signing Ishmael Miller gets in a shot VICTORY RUN: Above, Merouane Zemmama celebrates with Faris Haroun while, left, new boy Ishmael Miller gets in a header SURGE: Adam Reach leaves Palace in his wake Picture by IAN COOPERj
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Title Annotation:Sport
Publication:Evening Gazette (Middlesbrough, England)
Date:Aug 27, 2012
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