So, another disappointing defeat for Boro. Nobody was expecting much from the cup trip to Bournemouth, but it still adds to the ongoing malaise that has set in.
There have been no wins in the league since mid-September, but the cup had provided some respite until now. A morale-boosting cup win might have given the players a lift and kick-started the season, but it feels like we’ve been saying that for months now. Instead, we’re left reflecting on more individual errors and sucker punches. This continuation of poor form has lead many to seriously question Garry Monk’s position. He hasn’t been able to get his team playing in a clear, consistent style, nor has he been able to instill a winning mentality. He was given a lot of money to rebuild the squad and mount a promotion challenge, but at the moment that looks a long way off. Some fans have leapt to his defence and said that 13 games is far too early to sack a manager. I don’t think that’s necessarily true. If something is simply not working, and there’s no signs of improvement, then what’s the point in just blindly sticking with it in the hope of magical improvement?
Luckily, I do not think that’s the case with Monk just yet. The team have shown enough in flashes to suggest that they can play better and it might just be a case of Monk putting his finger on the correct system and getting the players fully committed.
But there’s no doubt he is in a precarious position and the pressure is building. He had a clear objective to win promotion and must have convinced Steve Gibson he was the right man to deliver exactly that. I’ve had a look at the arguments for and against keeping faith with Monk.
A summer of upheaval
This excuse has been raised many times and is starting to wear pretty thin. But it was a tumultuous summer. Relegation, the fallout from Karanka’s departure, the Agnew situation, massive turnover in playing staff. There are other teams that had major overhauls in the summer, but possibly none as much as Boro. This was a whole club transforming from top to bottom to scrub off the stench of a rank season and a divided dressing room. There are so many psychological factors that could be affecting the team spirit and individual performances and those wounds might take time to heal. It can’t go on forever obviously, but maybe they do just need a bit more time to fully get back to 100%.
He didn’t get his signings
This might seem a funny one given the amount of money spent, but there’s no doubt Monk would have liked a different make-up to his front five. There were high-profile moves for Sheiyi Ojo and Jota, links with various other wingers and at the beginning it even looked like he might be willing to give Ramirez a chance. All through pre-season he played a 4-2-3-1 formation, but come the start of the season didn’t really have the players he wanted for it. With the signing of Ashley Fletcher, he hastily reshuffled to a 4-3-3 system with which the players did not look at all comfortable. Even the players he did bring came quite late and were short of match fitness. By the end of the window, in order to play a balanced and functional team he needed to call upon a player he wanted to get rid of as soon as he walked through the door, and a player who can’t really be trusted to put in consistent performances. Not ideal for trying to put your stamp on things.
Key players have been missing
Again, with the money spent this shouldn’t be too much of an excuse but injuries and suspensions to key players, particularly in certain positions have hampered the progress of the team. Braithwaite looked bright in his first start, and appeared to be that important link between midfield and attack, but then got injured in his first league game. Gestede and Marvin Johnson were both doing well before injuries, and Traore even looked to be going in the right direction before his idiotic suspension. These forced changes have contributed to the disjointed start to the season.
Monk deserves some criticism for not being able to knit together this expensive squad, but sometimes you have to feel for him when players make basic errors. Ayala’s back pass against Wolves, needless penalties, Traore’s sending off against Villa, even Assombalonga’s misses against Forest. Without all these avoidable mistakes, we could well be up near the top of the table.
Coming into a new club in desperate need of a lift, it’s a bold call to completely freeze out a popular, senior, experienced member of the squad like Downing. Especially when Public Enemy Number 1 Gaston Ramirez is offered an olive branch. When Ramirez eventually left as everybody expected, Downing’s move to Birmingham fell through and Monk failed to land other targets, he was forced to come crawling back to Downing and reinstate him. It was sold as redemption for Downing and a sign he had worked his way back into the team, but in truth Monk turned to him because he had nobody else. The whole situation could have been handled much better. And there have been other instances of players performing well then finding themselves out of the squad. It all smacks of a manager not knowing what he’s doing.
Failing to find a settled system
This has been one of the biggest criticisms of Monk. There are some mitigating circumstances, but I feel Monk should have come in, picked a system he wanted to use and stuck with it. Even if it didn’t perfectly suit every player at his disposal, he had time to drill people on their role in the team. That way when new signings came in, or people came back from injury, they would slot in seamlessly. As it is, any time there’s an injury, suspension or loss of form, it prompts a whole system change to accommodate the replacements.
Lack of leadership
People have touched upon a lack of passion, or a lack of engagement with fans – I think the bigger issue is a general lack of leadership and discipline from the coaching team. There’s nothing wrong with a mild-mannered manager – just look at Mauricio Pochettino. But I have doubts over whether Monk has really stamped his authority on the squad and won over everybody. It doesn’t help that he keeps changing his mind over players and formations. He reminds me of a middle-manager type, with lots of cheesy motivational buzz-words and business jargon, but sometimes players just need a kick up the arse. He needs to admit when the team haven’t played well enough – and then work on it throughout the week.
He also needs to identify the real leaders in the squad and keep them in the team. I’m not Leadbitter’s biggest fan but one thing you get from him is an ability to drag the team through tough games and motivate everybody around him.
His track record
Sadly, the past doesn’t bode well for Monk. A lot of people saw him take a limited Leeds side close to the playoffs and assumed it was a good achievement. But you can’t plainly ignore the way they faded away at the end of the season. And at Swansea, after a good first full season it all unravelled very quickly. It all paints a picture of somebody with good ideas who can have a positive influence, but struggles to keep a team playing at a consistent level. Whether it’s poor man management, tactical naivety or just a lack of discipline, it’s concerning that he’s never been able to see a job through for the long term. Boro was supposed to be his big job, a place where he could finally settle and build his reputation. But if he fails his first objective, he shouldn’t be given any more time.