AT least they had a go. The end result might have been grimly familiar, delivered in farcical fashion when Victor Valdes slipped in his area in stoppage time to allow Antonio Valencia to tap into an empty net, but for 20 uplifting minutes, Middlesbrough finally showed a willingness to fight for their Premier League life.
With Rudy Gestede, who scored Boro’s first goal in 510 minutes of league football when he stabbed home with 13 minutes left, joining Alvaro Negredo in attack, and Stewart Downing and Adama Traore permitted to play with freedom down the flanks, this was a team refusing to accept their fate timidly, as had been the case on so many occasions under Aitor Karanka.
Will the change of emphasis be sufficient to keep Boro in the top-flight? Given the five-point gap that separates them from safety, and the difficulty of the games that remain, quite possibly not. Will it enable Steve Agnew to hold on to his job until the end of the season? That cannot be regarded as a given despite Steve Gibson’s hugely supportive pre-match comments.
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If nothing else, though, Boro’s performance in the final quarter of the game has at least engendered some optimism and hope, qualities that have been in short supply for the vast majority of the campaign. Play as they did in the closing stages for the whole of the ten games that remain, and at least the Teessiders will ensure they do not depart from the top-flight with a whimper.
The opening hour also marked an improvement on what had gone before, although it was not as pronounced. Prior to Gestede coming off the substitutes’ bench to replace Grant Leadbitter, Boro’s players had given their all without ever really looking like troubling a much-changed Manchester United line-up.
When Jesse Lingard followed up Maroune Fellaini’s first-half opener with a sensational long-range strike shortly after the hour mark, it looked as though the visitors were going to cruise to a routine win.
In the end, they claimed exactly that, but not without an uncomfortable period that saw Boro throw caution to the wind and the Riverside crowd rouse themselves in response.
Agnew will justifiably claim it would have been suicidal to play with similar abandon for the entire 90 minutes against a Manchester United side set up specifically to be effective on the counter-attack. But is the same true of Boro’s next three matches against Swansea, Hull and Burnley? Might Agnew now be convinced that attack is a decent form of defence in those games?
He might yet find himself shuffled aside before Boro head to the Liberty Stadium of course, but in terms of delivering a job interview for the head coach position until at least the end of the season, this was as good as could have been expected.
It was certainly more successful than Agnew’s one-game spell in charge last season, when Karanka’s shadow loomed large as Boro crashed to a 2-0 defeat at Charlton. Back then, Agnew was hamstrung by the actions of those around him. Yesterday, Karanka’s closest confidante, goalkeeping coach, Leo Percovich, was back on the pitch helping with the warm-ups, but there was none of the histrionics that proved so divisive at the Valley.
Percovich had wisely discarded his training top with AK emblazoned on it, and appears to be fully supportive of the new head coach. As well as unifying the dressing room, Agnew appears to have unified the remaining members of the coaching staff too.
He led a Boro side whose commitment could not be questioned, even if a lack of genuine top-class talent remains an issue. Boro gave their all, yet finished with nothing. Manchester United, lacking a host of top names, went through the motions in periods, yet ultimately ran out comfortable winners. That, though, is the difference between a side targeting the Champions League and one trying to keep itself out of the Championship.
Agnew’s changes worked, with Downing working tirelessly down the right-hand side, Gaston Ramirez displaying creativity and commitment cutting in from the left and Negredo troubling the Manchester United backline on a number of occasions in attack.
That said, however, Boro’s defeat would have been even more emphatic had it not been for the goalkeeping heroics of Valdes, whose stoppage-time aberration came at the end of an otherwise accomplished display.
The Spaniard raced from his line to deny the hugely-impressive Marcus Rashford after the striker burst behind the cumbersome Bernardo Espinosa in the seventh minute, and produced a sensational double save to prevent Manchester United taking the lead midway through the first half.
The first save was a good one, with Valdes parrying Rashford’s close-range effort after the striker moved slickly on to Juan Mata’s cross, but the second was even better as the Boro shot-stopper scrambled across his line to keep out Antonio Valencia’s follow-up effort.
He was finally beaten on the half-hour mark as Boro’s defensive failings proved their undoing. Antonio Barragan allowed Ashley Young to cut inside him on the right of the home side’s back four, and with Ben Gibson dropping marginally too deep, Fabio found himself on the wrong side of Fellaini. The battle was an aerial mismatch anyway, with Fellaini towering above his supposed marker as he headed home at the back post.
Boro’s best first-half effort came to nothing when David de Gea parried Ramirez’s shot, and the game looked as good as over when Manchester United claimed a stunning second.
Bernardo and Barragan will be disappointed at the way in which they stood off Lingard after he picked up the ball up inside his own half, but it was still impossible not to marvel at the quality of the strike that saw the ball arrow past Valdes from 20 yards.
Boro needed a lift, and it arrived with the twin introduction of Gestede and Traore, who skipped past two defenders to win a corner with his first touch of the ball.
Ten minutes later and Boro were back in the game, with their first goal since Negredo’s penalty against West Brom a direct result of having bodies in the box.
Phil Jones failed to deal with Negredo’s knock-down, Chris Smalling panicked when Marten de Roon nodded the ball back across the area, and Gestede swooped to prod home the loose ball.
Suddenly, Boro’s players were pushing for a point, but after an altercation between Gestede and Eric Bailly halted their momentum, they were undone in a cruelly comic manner.
Downing rolled a back-pass into the area, Valdes slipped as he shaped to clear, and Valencia was able to roll the ball into an unguarded net.
It was an unfortunate way in which to finish, and deprived the Boro players of what would have been a deservedly warm reception at the final whistle. The hope, with ten games left, is that they are still to come.