2Hot! 2Not! You (haven’t) got a Friend in me

Honestly thought that international break would never end! After the disappointing 0-0 draw with Preston at The Riverside, it was important that Boro responded positively against Bolton and Aston Villa.

2Hot! 2Not! You (haven’t) got a Friend in me

After taking very comfortable 3 points at the Macron on Saturday and an immensely hard-fought 0-0 at Villa Park last night, Boro come away from the week with a respectable 4 points. 2Hot! 2Not! is back to digest the last week’s action with the all-important HOT! and NOT! spots.

Without further ado, here goes.

HOT! Adama Traore

This selection probably doesn’t come as a surprise to many but this is the first time the explosive winger has featured in a positive light on 2H2N, having previously featured TWICE in a NOT-spot.

From zero, to hero (then back to zero again), Traore has gone from (allegedly) refusing to feature on the bench against Preston and being on the brink of leaving the club, to being the toast of the Teesside masses. The red card incident will be addressed later in this week’s feature so we’ll focus mainly on the positive here: THAT performance against Bolton.

Traore was unplayable – we’ve all seen the highlights – contributing two of the most ludicrous assists you’re every likely to see. His stats line from the game made for positive reading and has certainly begun to answer some of his critics: 90% pass completion, 16 dribbles completed, 3 key passes and 2 assists. He also contributed 3 tackles & 2 clearances from a defensive standpoint.

It was man against boys for Traore v the Bolton backline, akin to a Year 11 stealing a Year 7 football on the playground and tricking and dancing around them, teasing and playing with them until they could get enough numbers around him to force the ball back. Traore bounced off challenges, ran a slalom around seemingly static defenders and most importantly found the killer ball to lead to two Boro goals. The travelling Boro hoardes sang his name after both goals (before acknowledging the actual goalscorer) and gave him a standing ovation when he left the pitch, something which even some of the home supporters felt compelled to do. After the game, Boro scorer Britt Assombalonga said that Traore “was so good it’s ridiculous” and that if he goes, Britt knows there’s a chance he can score. The team celebrations around Adama after Britt’s second were a joy to behold.

Credit must be given to Garry Monk for his man-management of the winger in this instance and hopefully this can continue to provide the one thing Traore now lacks in his game: consistency. As far as individual performances go, he couldn’t be hotter after the Bolton showing, it was scorching. If Traore (with Monk’s help) can develop any modicum of consistency, then readers will get sick of seeing him feature in HOT! spots because this performance has shown that talent-wise, Traore is head and shoulders above anyone else.

HOT! The Fabio-lous Five

Dubious wordplay aside, the immense rear-guard performance at Aston Villa took Boro’s clean sheet tally for the season to 6 from 8 games. Boro were lauded for their defensive excellence last time in this division and it would appear that some things never change with Garry Monk having quickly established a solid and effective defensive setup.

Its foundation is made of the strongest material known around these parts: Teesside Steel. Ben Gibson and Dael Fry are both Middlesbrough-born lads who have formed a central defensive partnership as strong as the legendary Teesside export. Fry will benefit from playing next to Gibson and he has answered every question asked of him thus far. There is still some physical development to go but he has shown he is an incredibly well-balanced & intelligent centre back who – despite the return to fitness of Dani Ayala and Ryan Shotton coming into the club – has managed to retain his place in the starting lineup on sheer merit.

If the foundation of the defence is Teesside Steel, it catches the eye because of an Emerald sheen. Cyrus Christie and Darren Randolph both featured in HOT! spots last week and they continue to impress. Randolph made a string of excellent saves versus Bolton and kept Boro in the game more than once against Aston Villa, eventually claiming the official Boro MOTM and The Gazette’s 3 stars! Despite much early criticism and uncertainty about the signing, Randolph is showing the Boro faithful how much of an asset he can be. Social media and fan messageboards are unanimous in praise with many already hailing Randolph as “the signing of the summer” and one particular Boro fan on social media offering the loftiest of praises, boldly stating Randolph is “the best bald keeper the club has ever had”. Lofty praise indeed.

Fabio has gained his place on merit and him and Christie offer great options at fullback. Christie offers an excellent wide, attacking option whilst being solid at the back and Fabio offers more industry than typical Brazilian flair but is correctly in the team over long-term fan-favourite George Friend.

Boro look to be the same defensive animal we have been in the last few seasons and it shows no signs of letting up, Garry Monk will be pleased he has managed to establish this early on in his Boro career and it will no doubt serve as a solid base to build future performances and systems upon.

NOT! James Linington

The general standard of officiating in this division is woeful and unfortunately, we were served to another exhibition of this on Tuesday night against Villa. Referees at this level are either: a) too concerned with making the game about themselves or b) too incompetent to actually do the job properly. I’m not quite sure which bracket Mr. James Linington falls into but he ruined the game last night and afterwards, most of the talk is about him and his decisions.

On paper, this was arguably the game of the season thus far: both big spending, pre-season favourites facing off against each other early in the season. Villa were under pressure and needed to respond, Boro were confident after a comfortable win against Bolton; Adama Traore and Stewart Downing back at their old club and Jonathan Kodjia was fit to return to action against a resolute Boro backline (albeit from the bench).

Any chance of a spectacle or good game was effectively ruined on 4 minutes when James Linington decided – with advice from his linesman – that Adama Traore’s blocking challenge was worthy of a red card. Adama does travel at their player fast and his right foot is off the ground, however he is only trying to block the ball and it’s the trailing left leg (which is trailing along the ground) that catches the Villa player. The ref gave himself time to give the decision but was ultimately swayed by the Villa players’ and fans’ reaction - he has fundamentally failed to correctly evaluate the challenge and circumstances. The Villa player has also done Traore no favours and the baying crowd were unsurprisingly delighted to see their former player dismissed.

What do most poor referees do when they make such a mistake? They come out and even it up with another incorrect decision.

2H2N would argue that Henri Lansbury’s challenge on Marvin Johnson constitutes a professional foul more so than Traore’s red card however 999 times out of 1000 it is correctly punished with a yellow card. Lansbury did not stop an immediate goal-scoring opportunity, it wasn’t particularly high or malicious and wasn’t ever going to seriously damage the Boro man. The referee – tainted by his previous decision – overreacts and evens the numbers - except Boro had been playing with ten-men for an hour at this point and as such were not able to capitalise on this. The entire debacle could have been resolved by the referee simply showing some restraint and common sense, awarding Traore a yellow, keeping the game 11 v 11 and not making a rod for his own back.

Garry Monk sounded as if he was planning an appeal but based on previous FA instances and their penchant for confounding their refereeing inadequacies, this is likely to be unsuccessful.

NOT! George Friend

Promotion to the Premier League seems to have had an irreparable effect on the fortunes and performances of George Friend. The fan-favourite struggled to adjust to the pace and physicality and seems to be suffering from a Premier League hangover which is still blighting him this season.

Friend has struggled to make his usual impact in an attacking sense and has looked slightly dodgy defensively. The out-of-sorts defender has recently lost his place to Fabio, who has performed confidently and effectively, despite transfer talk linking the Brazilian with a move away during the summer. With Boro’s back five currently performing superbly well as discussed in HOT! spots above, it is difficult to see how Friend gets back into the team.

It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly where things have gone awry for a formerly reliable stalwart though there are currently several theories: Friend has discussed the dressing room divisions under Aitor Karanka and perhaps Friend has been involved or on the receiving end of this; Friend was linked with a move away from Boro with Premier League Watford, amongst others, showing interest in the summer. Is it possible that Friend wanted the opportunity to discuss a move away but was blocked by incoming manager Garry Monk? Lastly; lots can be read into Friend’s deployment against Preston. Friend wasn’t performing at fullback and had been ousted by Fabio but Monk provided him with another opportunity to move inside to centre back, where Friend was again disappointing. It’s certainly a curious case and all the above is mere speculation to provoke discussion and thought on the steady decline of George Friend.

Friend is a cult-hero and borderline club legend, 2H2N is certain he will bounce back if given the opportunity, but there’s no denying he currently finds himself in a position which will be foreign and unusual for him.

That’s all for this week folks! As usual let us know what you think through the usual channels.

2Hot! 2Not! will return next Wednesday to review the home tie against QPR and the second visit to Villa Park in the Carabao Cup. Be sure to check-in next week!