Middlesbrough lack cutting edge as Swansea hold off first-half flurry

Louise Taylor at Riverside Stadium on 22 September 2018

Efficiency is always commendable but, in a football context at least, it pays the greatest dividends when combined with cold-blooded ruthlessness.

If there can be no doubt that Middlesbrough have the first part of that equation sorted – Tony Pulis’s wonderfully stable side are still to concede a Championship goal at home this season and are behind the leaders, Leeds, only on goal difference – their final ball has a nasty habit of letting them down.

Hats off to Graham Potter for reorganising and reinvigorating his hitherto struggling Swansea players at half-time, but if the Teessiders are to stay in the top two they are surely going to need to conjure more incision – and imagination – than this. Dead-ball dependence is all very well, but automatic promotion usually demands a threat from open play.

“We had the chances to win,” said Pulis. “But although Swansea defended very well and never let us get in behind them, you need that spark in the final third.”

Potter did his best to ensure it never ignited courtesy of a switch from 4-2-3-1 to 4-3-3 at the interval which, along with the introduction of Tom Carroll, solidified his team and restricted Adam Clayton’s control of midfield. “I’m happy with the point, this isn’t an easy place to come,” said Swansea’s manager. “Ryan Shotton’s long throws are so hard to control. We can improve a few things, but I’m delighted with our spirit.”

At the end of an opening half, when they won set piece after set piece and Shotton seemed to be constantly hurling the ball into the box, Middlesbrough should really have been ahead.

Connor Roberts, Mike van der Hoorn and Joe Rodon all shone in the visiting defence, but Potter had Erwin Mulder to thank for the moment when Swansea’s goalkeeper turned Stewart Downing’s left-foot shot round a post after the former England winger met Martin Braithwaite’s clever reverse pass. There was also the goalbound Dani Ayala shot fortuitously deflected to safety and the dipping volley from George Saville that clipped the crossbar.

Saville offers Pulis’s team a glimpse of the sort of subtlety and composure they have long craved, but such guile deserted him as his unconvincing tumble in the penalty area prompted a booking for diving.

Although Darren Randolph saved smartly to deny Martin Olsson, Swansea’s initially promising attempts to pass Boro off the pitch were quickly stymied by an amalgam of assiduous pressing and a tactical rejig on Pulis’s part involving Downing switching from a tucked in role on the right to a more familiar left-wing deployment. With Braithwaite now stationed just behind Britt Assombalonga and Downing’s relocation enabling Boro to temporarily alternate between a back four and a back three, Potter’s players briefly looked bewildered.

As Mulder diverted Assombalonga’s volley they were almost unhinged but, creditably, their manager kept his cool and devised an effective damage limitation plan. Despite Ayala continuing to restrict Ollie McBurnie, Swansea improved significantly in the second half, defending more convincingly.

Indeed, after surviving that first-half bombardment, Mulder barely made a save; something that said as much about Boro’s blunt attacking edge as Potter’s evidently impressive half-time homily.

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