As Sam Greenwood was picking himself up off the floor after being fouled, and preparing to take the late free-kick that won the game for Middlesbrough against Leicester, the home crowd were booing. Earlier in the match, Greenwood had taken a set-piece from much closer to the penalty area, and squandered it by striking into the wall. Wanting to avoid a repeat, Boro’s fans were fuming at the referee for not allowing their side to play advantage and try to score a winner from open play.
For someone known as a free-kick specialist, it had been a long time since Greenwood actually converted one. Before the weekend, the last time he scored from a dead ball was for what was then known as Leeds United’s Under-23s, over two years ago, in a win at Aston Villa’s training ground that ensured the side finished top of the Premier League 2’s second tier.
Greenwood was playing as a number 10 that day. To his left was Crysencio Summerville, who has recently tormented Leicester himself. To Greenwood’s right was Bobby Kamwa, who has also played against Leicester this season, making one of his sporadic appearances for Burton Albion in a first round League Cup tie against the Foxes. Kamwa didn’t have the same joy as Summerville. His day was ruined by two former Leeds loanees: Jamal Blackman failed to stop Leicester’s two goals in the same way he failed to usurp Bailey Peacock-Farrell, and Kamwa was replaced in the second half by an apparition of Leeds’ wilderness years, Mustapha Carayol.
Boro’s fans might not have been too confident in Greenwood, but their boss Michael Carrick was. “He practises that all the time,” Carrick said. “He had one before that that I think was probably just a bit too close. You can only get so much power and dip… I kind of had a feeling as he stepped up, I fancied him because it looked like it was set up just at the right spot for him.”
Greenwood had the momentum of three goals in his previous five appearances for Boro. All were scored from inside the penalty area. Could a shot at goal from thirty yards with a five-man wall and a ‘keeper in between him and the goal really be considered “just at the right spot for him”? Well, as it turns out — hell yeah!
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“The one he scored from,” said Carrick, “I was going to say perfect…”
Go on, say it!
“…it probably was that.”
That’s how the commentator described it anyway. It was so perfect, in fact, that teammate Rav van den Berg couldn’t quite believe it, holding his head in his hands while the rest of the team were running off to celebrate with Sam.
Greenwood’s individual performance was in complete contrast to Leicester’s collective display. Playing on the left wing, much of his match was spent recreating Summerville and Dan James’ roles in Leeds’ win at Leicester, tracking back to help out his full-back in defence. He only attempted thirteen passes, completing fewer than half of them. In total, he lost possession sixteen times. (A reminder: Jesse Marsch thought he was a deep-lying midfielder!) But when the referee blew the full-time whistle, the scoreboard read ‘Middlesbrough 1-0 Leicester’.
Leicester, on the other hand, passed and passed and passed. They had twice as much possession as the hosts. But, in the words of manager Enzo Maresca, they continued to “miss, miss, miss”. The Bald Fraud’s post-match presser continued the theme from his post-Leeds delusion. “To be honest, we were in control of the game,” he said. “We created five or six clear chances and many situations also where we missed the last pass.”
Even the Leicester Mercury couldn’t ignore the whiff of Maresca’s comments:
‘This was broadly his verdict on the Leeds game too, albeit that was twisting the truth somewhat. Leeds were the better team and, if any side deserved to win that night, it was them. At the Riverside Stadium, Maresca’s overview is not a distortion of events but it doesn’t quite tell the full picture.’
Leicester’s ‘keeper was forced into as many good saves as Boro’s, and if Maresca is worried about his team’s wastefulness in front of goal, maybe he should come up with a better idea than playing right-back Ricardo Pereira as an attacking midfielder in a system that meant Pereira was ‘ending up as the striker fairly often’.
Boro had another source of Leeds fingerprints to thank for their win, captain Jonny Howson tasked with man-marking Kiernan Batley-Highstreet out of the game. Centre-half Dael Fry was given a similar job sticking to striker Kelechi Iheanacho, even if it meant following him so far up the pitch Howson was sometimes deeper than the two centre-halves he was, in theory, meant to be shielding.
I’d say it was straight out of the Marcelo Bielsa playbook, something else they could thank Leeds for, but in Middlesbrough it reminded them of another manager whose association with Elland Road I’d rather forget:
‘Man-marking missions are not something we’ve seen from Boro since Neil Warnock’s time in charge.’ ⬢