Interpreted generously, 35 minutes of competent, occasionally penetrative play, bookended a seriously poor midsection to constitute the type of sandwich it is unnecessary to elucidate, and exposed Huddersfield Town’s failings as they continue to plunge inexorably towards the bottom of a distinctly average division.
A very bright opening saw Town move the ball quickly and purposefully against a lethargic Middlesbrough side suffering their own injury and form problems.
Typically incisive in the early stage of a match in which the Terriers desperately needed a reaction to Saturday’s disastrous and hugely damaging defeat, it is far from uncommon for Corberán’s charges to set the tempo with great promise, but seasoned observers know that the superiority is almost inevitably illusory.
Rewarded for their enterprise in an encouraging 10 minutes by another excellent free-kick conversion by Mbenza following a foul on Pipa, followed by a break minutes later when Mbenza failed to find the unmarked Holmes in the box, the visitors didn’t appear to have been crushed by the weekend’s events.
Until Middlesbrough woke up.
With the simple application of greater intensity, the home side, possibly fearful of wily old Warnock’s wrath come the break, broke the visitors down with disconcerting, though hardly surprising, ease.
The shape of the side disintegrated, control was entirely abandoned and a horror show ensued for a full half-hour culminating in a deserved half time lead for Boro which deserved to be greater than just one goal.
Pinned in their own half, the folly of drafting O’Brien as a temporary left-back and starting the perpetually ineffective Pritchard in his midfield place was ruthlessly exploited by the hosts. Town weren’t helped by a literal lack of sure-footedness as several in yellow slipped over at crucial moments, including in the lead up to the equaliser, which had been coming.
Panicky defending kept Boro at bay for 15 minutes, though the obligatory comedy moment arrived soon enough with Sarr and Schofield creating havoc for themselves and allowing Watmore to poke the ball through the keeper’s legs in to the open penalty area. Fortunately, Mbenza was on hand to clear. Unfortunately, the Belgian pulled his groin making the clearance and left the pitch a few minutes later to join the teeming throng of the injured.
Middlesbrough equalised on the half-hour with a good quality strike by Watmore who should never have been allowed to get in a position to shoot. O’Brien, temporarily delayed into position by the aforementioned slip, waved an apologetic right leg as an excuse for a challenge as Watmore cut inside, bypassed Sarr with consummate ease and fired past Schofield. Sarr, in fact, had been beaten easily twice in the space of seconds.
The defensive disarray and inability to keep possession encouraged the hosts to swarm all over the Terriers and force a series of corners and dangerous open play situations. They thought they had taken the lead from a free kick on the right when Schofield’s inexplicable rush from his line allowed Hall to head home from, to the relief of the young keeper, an offside position.
With all confidence squeezed out of them by the relentlessness of Boro, the sanctity of half time while still level was just about the only hope for the battered visitors; an objective they could not achieve.
Yet another cheap loss of possession on the left allowed a cross into the area and Fisher arrived to meet it just before O’Brien whose tardy challenge felled the attacker to concede a clear and unequivocal penalty.
Benevolent as ever, Schofield’s lame attempt to save Fletcher’s rather insipid penalty allowed the ex-Barnsley man to end his goal drought which stretched back to September (though 4 months out with injury didn’t help).
Another late goal changed the game’s dynamic, even if that dynamic was flowing entirely in one direction in any case, and it was almost impossible to imagine a Town recovery in the second half.
Just before the break, a rare Town foray into opposition territory brought a free kick in Mbenza range. In his absence, Bacuna drew a routine save from Bettenelli.
To his credit, Corberán made the necessary, and obvious, changes at half time. O’Brien was relieved of his full-back duties in favour of Rowe who at least had the credentials of having played in the position more than twice, all be it on the other side of the pitch, and Pritchard’s typically feeble contribution was terminated to get O’Brien back to where he is comfortable.
Middlesbrough’s need to press forward was less urgent than in the first half and while they dominated the opening of the second half, there wasn’t quite the intensity which had crumbled Town before the break. Nevertheless, the visitors remained on the back foot and Sarr proved to be more adept at clearing danger coming into the box than tackling out wide.
With 20 minutes to go, and with Phillips replacing the anonymous and disappointing Holmes, Town finally began to assert some control over the game and began to look capable of an equaliser. A fast break saw the visitors with a four on one advantage which they managed to mess up through a poor attempted pass by Pipa, but the situation seemed to give Town more belief.
A raid by the lively Rowe saw his cross spooning up off a defender and Phillips, who had shown a lot of purpose since coming on, flicked his header from short range only for Bettellini to touch away.
An excellent chance for Campbell following some good work by Bacuna was lashed wildly over the bar when more composure was needed.
Town were provided with a numerical advantage with 10 minutes to go when McNair brought down Bacuna on the edge of the box and was, perhaps harshly, sent off for his rash challenge. Sarr took the Mbenza territory free-kick but put it over the bar.
Pushing Boro backwards in desperate search of a point, the best chance fell to the lively Phillips who took a pass from Campbell, made space and hit the inside of the post with the keeper beaten.
Despite maintaining the pressure in the dying minutes, Town couldn’t fashion another chance of equal danger and another defeat left them still winless in 2021 and facing a strong Swansea side at the weekend.
A desperately poor half-hour in the first half cost them dearly, as did the team selection. Playing O’Brien at left-back was a poor decision exacerbated by handing Pritchard a start. It is becoming clear that Schofield needs a break and is adding to an increasingly spooked defence, and while Phillips and Rowe may also succumb to the same type of breakdown through inexperience, they surely earned a start in the next game.
Though not on the same scale as the Wycombe debacle, the seemingly endless throwing away of advantage persists. An inability to maintain performance levels over 90 minutes plagues a team crying out for calming presence and leadership. Hogg cannot deliver this on his own.
With a tough February schedule ahead, it now seems certain that Town’s situation will deteriorate and reliance on the failings of others the only preventative strategy. Mbenza’s injury adds another worry to Corberán’s pile. The revelation that he has been playing on the edge of breakdown for the past few weeks goes a long way to explain his subdued performances and shines a harsh light on the management of players’ fitness.
The agony persists.