An FA Cup capitulation was a worrying result for the present and, maybe, the future of Peterborough United.
Middlesbrough are a top six Championship side, but they don’t tend to achieve big wins. Not under the managerial reign of Tony Pulis anyway. Boro have scored 28 goals in 26 Championship matches this season, the same as next-to-bottom Reading, but scored five in 45 minutes at the Riverside yesterday (January 5) against a defence which included two new signings.
Any side with £15 million signing Britt Assombalonga up top should be a force against a League One side, and he scored twice against his old club, but only last month Boro failed to score against middling third tier team Burton Albion in a Carabao Cup quarter-final and lost, at home. Hardly mission impossible then for a Posh team whose position and playing record at least suggests full-time time Championship football is a real possibility next season. Be careful what you wish for on this evidence though. As the top League One sides, Portmouth, Luton and Barnsley, were battling fiercely against higher-level opposition, Posh ruined a competitive first-half display with an ultimately meek departure from the most prestigious knockout competition for the second season in a row. Posh fell apart after falling behind which is usually a sign of a side lacking confidence and self-belief, a worry for a team who were actually losing back-to-back matches for the first time this season.
Posh boss Steve Evans did his best to deflect attention from Boro’s biggest win in 11 years and his own own club’s biggest defeat for almost 30 months by focusing on what he called ‘the best 45 minutes of football in my time here,’ while managing to avoid personal criticism of those who made the errors that set the home side on the way to victory. Ryan Tafazolli and Joe Ward were cuplable for two home goals in the opening five minutes of the second-half while a collective lack of defensive desire to close down, track runs and mark tightly for the rest of the match enabled Boro to romp home.
Evans did well to contain the fury that must have built up inside.
“We were great in the second-half,” Pulis enthused before issuing a cutting line. “But let’s not get carried away. We weren’t playing a top-end Championship side.”
No, but they were playing a club with an eye on second tier football, a prospect diminishing steadily in the eyes of those who watch Posh every week. Gone is the defensive solidity shown at Charlton and elsewhere at the start of the campaign and gone is the pacy, and yes attractive, football that enabled Posh to blow away the likes of Rochdale and Plymouth away from home. The Christmas crushing of Accrington will turn out to be a blip unless Evans can get to grips with inconsistencies spread across the entire line-up. Even in-form Ivan Toney misfired yesterday and there are no signs of anyone else stepping up to the plate in front of goal.
Evans’ immediate new year tactic was to throw more signings into the squad. The on-loan arrivals last week of Ben White and Daniel Lafferty make it 20 signings since the end of last season and both did okay at times without threatening to stem the current tidal wave of defensive errors. More new men could be in town before Rochdale arrive at the ABAX Stadium on Saturday for a League One game which could have all sorts of ramifications. Dale are in freefall, leaking goals for fun and boast the worst goal difference in the division and yet even they will fancy taking on a team who have struggled for form at home all season.
If Posh can more regularly put together the sort of sweeping length-of-the-field passing move that ended with Toney blazing over with only 40 year-old goalkeeper Dimi Konstanopolous to beat yesterday they will win plenty of games, but only if they can also find some sort of defensive form. Yesterday Posh started with three centre-backs and coped pretty well until Assombalonga opened the scoring.
But then it all went to pieces just like Posh form tends to do after bowing out of the FA Cup. Posh didn’t win any of their next five matches after a home hammering by Leicester City’s reserves last season, a run that cost a manager his job.
Posh: Conor O’Malley, Jason Naismith, Ben White, Ryan Tafazolli, Joe Ward, Daniel Lafferty, Louis Reed (sub Callum Cooke, 73 mins), Alex Woodyard, Mark O’Hara (sub Matt Godden, 58 mins), Ivan Toney, Siriki Dembele (sub Jason Cummings, 80 mins).
Unused substitutes: Aaron Chapman, Rhys Bennett, Tyler Denton, George Cooper.
Middlesbrough: Dimi Konstanopolous, Dael Fry, Daniel Ayala, George Friend, Paddy McNair, Grant Leadbitter, Rajiv Van La Parra (sub Lewis Wing, 46 mins), Marcus Tavernier (sub Harry Chapman, 73 mins), Ashley Fletcher, Rudy Gestede (sub Stephen Walker, 73 mins), Britt Assombalonga.
Unused substitutes: Andy Lonergan, Adam Clayton, Nathan Wood, Djed Spence.
Goals: Boro - Assombalonga (47 mins & 70 mins), Friend (49 mins), Wing (63 mins), Fletcher (86 mins).
Cautions: Posh - White (foul).
Boro - Leadbitter (foul).
Referee: James Linington 6.5
Attendance: 11,647 (1,266 Posh).