Two wins, two clean sheets. Amazing what a few days does for the morale.
After the Wolves game the mood music was a mixture of disappointment and a call for patience, and whilst the need for caution and patience is still there, the feeling on Teesside right now is one of positivity. The winning feeling is back and boy does it feel good.
But for a Dani Ayala howler we’d be sitting on seven points with three clean sheets to boot, but you can’t have everything. We’ll get our fair share of luck this season. In fact last night’s win against Burton contained a small gift from their defence; albeit not as obvious as Ayala’s misplaced pass. The first of Britt Assombalonga’s brace came after a defensive mix up, however pressure from the likes of big Rudy Gestede offer proof that you often make your own luck too.
However, after two improved performances, it’s only right that we as fans should be feeling pretty good right now. Ok, the level of opposition faced won’t be the most difficult that we’ll come across this season, but you can only beat what’s put out in front of you, and that exactly what we did. After the depressing episode that was last season, you can’t blame the fans for feeling exhilarated by the more attacking football on show right now.
The loss of Martin Braithwaite to injury at first appeared to be a major one considering his obvious talent and the fact he was one of the big summer signings, and whilst it’s still a blow it’s not being felt quite as much as expected. Step forward Rudy Gestede.
Often the stick with which to beat the clubs recruitment policy last January, Gestede was the name on everyone’s lips when it came to expected outgoings, yet he’s still here. I’ll be honest, I thought he’d be on his way and wasn’t overly excited to see him stick around, but right now I’m finding myself eating a bit of a humble pie. Revelation is a big word, so I’m holding back from using it, but a welcome surprise is how I’d describe the Benin international’s contribution so far.
His goal against Sheffield United, the winner, was the classic target man’s effort, but it was his all-round display in a fluid front three which pleased me the most. Alongside Patrick Bamford and Assombalonga you would expect Gestede to be the focal point, the most central of the three, but he’s showed himself to rather competent playing across the front. As well as his goal against United, he’s made two assists (if you can stretch his saved effort before Assombalonga’s second against Burton as an assist), so he’s proving to be quite the handful right now.
It remains to be seen whether he keeps his place once Braithwaite has returned to full fitness, but he’s definitely done more than enough so far to stake a claim.
His fellow front men have contributed massively to the upturn in attacking success. Still without a goal, Bamford has done everything but. His link up play between the midfield and attack has been outstanding, as well has his ability to create space for himself, vital in his current role as the deeper of the three-pronged attack.
He may not have found his range just yet in front of goal, but it’ll come with game time, something which has been alien to him this past couple of years. Right now, though, he just looks happy to be out on the pitch, revelling in his role as chief creator.
As for Assombalonga, well the if the two goals he bagged last night were anything to by, then we know we’re in for a treat this season. It’s seemed like such a long time since we had that explosive element to our striking department. Not since the days of JFH and The Yak have we really had that powerful, hustle and bustle type front man, someone who’s going to unsettle the opposition defence.
In today’s market £15m is probably the going rate for a player of his calibre and at the moment that price looks good value. Should he carry that form on throughout the season then it’ll end up being a snip. It’s so refreshing to see someone up top who’s going to chase every ball, not giving his opposition a moment’s peace. The goals he scored showed his clinical side, as well good anticipation too, vital ingredients in any striker’s weaponry.
It’s not just in the final third of the pitch where we’ve impressed though, the back four has looked assured too. An injury to Ayala has opened the door for Dael Fry to stake a claim at the heart of the defence, and on current evidence he’s giving his Spanish rival a run for his money.
His maturities beyond his year’s displays have seen him forge a very satisfying partnership with fellow local lad Ben Gibson. As a fan there’s nothing more pleasing than to see home-grown talent shine and right now that’s exactly what happening. You just hope that in the ensuing weeks the Boro board stave off any kind of interest for captain and hero Gibson, no matter what the offer.
As well as the centre halves, the full backs have impressed too. We all know about George Friend’s marauding tendencies and just how well he looks going forward, and in new boy Cyrus Christie we seem to have brought in more of the same too. Fabio can count himself extremely unlucky to be left out, however the sight of Friend and Christie bombing forward down the flanks is a joy to behold.
Of course they’re there to defend first and foremost but, as we’d expect, Boro are going to dominate a lot of games this season, so their attacking prowess should prove vital in the search for points.
Friend did at one point appear to have channelled his inner Ayala with a misplaced pass last night, however instances such as that are pretty rare where he’s concerned, so defensively we can count on him once more. After such a disappointing, injury –hit season last time out, Friend will be looking to re-establish himself as one of the team’s biggest assets.
I guess the only question mark right now is in the middle of the park.
Adam Clayton has clearly been asked to take on a new role, one of which he’s performing rather well it has be said. Dropping in deep between the centre halves, often being the furthest back seems rather odd on first glance, but when you see the contribution he’s making it actually appears to be working rather well. His role as chief set-piece taker is possibly one of the more surprising elements of Garry Monk’s team, however new on loan signing Lewis Baker may well end up assuming that particular task once he forces his way into the starting line-up.
Of the midfield two in front of Clayton it would appear Adam Forshaw is the most vulnerable between him and Jonny Howson. Neither has made a massive impact so far, but with Howson costing £5m in the summer you’d expect the long term plan is for him to be one of the first names on the team sheet, leaving Forshaw dropping out in favour of Baker as the games come thick and fast.
Forshaw offers a lot in terms of possession, his ability to retain the ball being his biggest asset, but it’s his perceived lack of penetrative play that lets him down. The killer through ball, the confidence to drive forward when the chance arises, as well as his lack of goal threat from outside the box – all elements of play missing on his current displays. Lewis Baker looks to offer all that considering his impressive stats from the last couple of seasons, albeit in the Dutch top flight, but all the same they’re not to be sniffed at. He’s a real prospect and one that will have been brought in with a view to regular football; it’s hard to see Chelsea allowing the move without that premise.
All in all then, it’s been a rather positive few days. Crazy really, the season’s only 10 days old yet the defeat away at Wolves seems but a distant memory. Much tougher battles lie ahead, starting away at the City Ground on Saturday.
Nottingham Forest won’t be easy opponents and have started well themselves, aside from the disappointing 2-1 reverse against Barnsley on Tuesday. They’ll have their tails up at home in front of a decent crowd no doubt, but don’t bet against their former main man Britt Assombalonga coming back to haunt them.
Let’s face it; it’d be a nice change for us to be on the right end of a player haunting a former employer.