Faintly unreal to see us playing like this…
A top keeper earns you points over a season and Ruddy certainly got himself off the mark in that respect yesterday. Two big saves from Britt Assombalonga and that is what we have been lacking ever since Wayne Hennessey got injured over five years ago; someone between the sticks who will make saves that you don’t expect him to make. Commanding and proactive throughout. I wasn’t totally enthused when we signed him as it seemed he’d been on the wane for a while at Norwich, but perhaps a fresh start elsewhere is what he needed.
Great to have a defender who is that comfortable on the ball. It’s also key that whoever we pick on the outside of the back three is at ease if they get pulled into the channels and Miranda definitely doesn’t lack for mobility. There are still aspects of his game that need work as he adjusts to English football; the booking he eventually picked up was a sham as he pulled out of the tackle, but referees won’t allow you to commit multiple fouls inside the opening half an hour and let you get away with it.
Continued his encouraging start in the centre of defence, even having time to spray a pinpoint ball out to the wing. Eat your heart out, David Luiz. There is an Achilles heel to his game and that is a ball that’s dropped over his head – whether it’s a case of not being aware of what’s around him or simply lacking ability in the air, who can say. It’s something that needs addressing as we can’t always rely on the keeper bailing us out. Or indeed Coady getting back on the line.
An absolute man mountain. Someone of that size is always going to look a bit ungainly on the ball, but in possession he’s generally fine rather than being a Mamadou Sakho tribute act. As you would expect, wasn’t troubled physically in the slightest but if I could make one request, it would be for him not to try backheading the ball towards our own goal when we’re 1-0 up with two minutes to go. My blood pressure has already taken a battering from watching Richard Stearman for years, I thought those kind of scares were gone.
This was a pretty atypical Doherty performance in as much as he defended pretty well (yes, really) but didn’t do a huge amount going forward. This is a concern in the longer term; the wingback roles in this team, particularly while we’re playing at this level, are attacking ones. While Doherty does have some qualities as an orthodox attacking full back supporting a winger, if all the emphasis is on him to create from the right hand side…he simply isn’t good enough to do that. He seems to have given up on crossing the ball (this is possibly instruction, although it would seem odd if that were the case) and he’s never going to beat a man. He does look fitter, and he definitely put more effort in, and by no means would you say he had a bad game. Nor did he wear gloves. Now that’s fulsome praise coming from me. Cherish it, Matt.
It’s very, very strange to me that Douglas has had such an esoteric career to date because a player of that quality should not have spent the last four years playing in the Polish and Turkish leagues. His first touch is impeccable, his delivery excellent (although the set pieces weren’t quite on the mark yesterday) and he’s the right profile in an athletic sense to play that wingback role. Looks an absolute snip at around £1m.
Where to even start? This guy is just ridiculous. As I said after the Leicester game last week, his knack of finding space marks him out as a truly special player and when it’s allied to that range of passing – one pass in particular out to Doherty was as good as you’ll ever see – then the comparisons to Paul Scholes don’t seem so far fetched. Unlike Scholes, he can actually tackle too and there seems little prospect of him being intimidated physically. Maarten de Roon is a quality midfielder but he was comprehensively outshone by Neves yesterday. Shame on The Guardian for publishing an article with the headline “Is Ruben Neves really suited to the Championship?” on Friday. Er, yeah. He’s a seriously good player. The grass is still green, the ball is still round. Of course he is.
More good progress from a man who has always had the ability without it being clear whether he had the mentality or consistency to succeed here. It does make you wonder why both Walter Zenga and Paul Lambert played him so deep because he is definitely way more effective when he’s playing 20-30 yards further up the pitch. Broke up play well, quality in possession and again, totally played his opposite number in Jonny Howson off the park.
Disappointing to hear him getting a fair amount of stick from the stands because a) he’s a very talented young player who was making just his 10th league start of his career yesterday and b) he didn’t have a bad game at all. Yes, he can be frustrating at times and that decision making in the final third is still his weakness. But as an outlet on the right hand side he did very well, his running at the defence was always threatening, he forced a good save from Darren Randolph early in the second half and we should have been awarded a penalty shortly afterwards when Adam Clayton chopped him down (insert your own lame U2-based pun here). He might even drop out of the team next week when Ivan Cavaleiro is available following his suspension. He’ll definitely struggle to get much gametime in that role when Helder Costa is fit. But he is an asset to us.
There will be many games I’m sure where Jota has far more of an impact in an attacking sense for us. This was a fairly quiet game for him, which must of course be caveated by the fact that we were up against one of the best teams (and certainly one of the best defences) that we will face all season. What was noticeable was the amount of times that he dug in and did his defensive bit; one passage of play in particular where he won the ball in our left back area, carried it 40 yards and was hacked down on halfway. It’s that kind of work which shows up the “these Portuguese lads won’t fancy it in the Championship” trope for the drivel it is. Nuno has brought these players in for their character as well as their talent – if they couldn’t hack it then they wouldn’t be here.
It was asking a lot for Leo to play against Ben Gibson and Dani Ayala having only been in the country for four days or so and having had no pre-season action to speak of. He did a manful job, another one who has an impressive physical presence and the fabled Good Touch For A Big Man (which I believe Niall Quinn copyrighted in around 1993). He was gifted his goal to an extent – I have no idea what Ayala was thinking to play a square ball like that – but it still needed finishing off. Could you have seen Joe Mason or Jon Dadi Bodvarsson sticking it away? Not really. Clearly gassed after an hour and will improve as he builds his fitness up.
The problem we face with Dicko is that his strength is (and always has been) running the channels and thriving on the ball over the top. But we don’t play like that any more. We need our central striker to hold the ball up and be a focal point for everything going on around him, and sadly Nouha didn’t look capable of doing that yesterday. One of the second half chances that Middlesbrough had came directly from him miscontrolling the ball and it was telling that our control of the game dropped dramatically when he came on. We’re all willing him to come good, but it’s possible that his time here is coming to an end as he simply doesn’t fit what we want to do.
This was confusing all round. His introduction led to Dicko shifting to the right of the front three and Dave playing centrally, almost as a false nine. Which is not a role I ever saw him playing. He didn’t do it well either. His first contribution was to lamp the ball out of play and beyond being caught offside a couple of times in a Jeremy Helan style and running around a bit, he didn’t do much at all. Another one where you struggle to see how and where he can feature in this system.
Only ten minutes or so, still had time for a couple of runs which earned us much-needed breathing space and killed off time towards the end of the game. There’ll be a role for him to play this season.