Middlesbrough's hobbled defence gives way in defeat to Man United
Middlesbrough faced Manchester United after an unusually speculative week for both clubs. Boro parted ways with head coach Aitor Karanka on Wednesday after a string of unsatisfactory performances and their descent into the bottom three, while United boss Jose Mourinho stated that his side would "probably lose" after a busy week that saw them play in three competitions.
Assistant manager Steve Agnew stepped up in Karanka's wake and fielded a relatively standard Boro team, set up to defend with Alvaro Negredo alone up front. The 3-1 scoreline belies some bright flashes and positivity from Boro, plus a United side who looked shaky at the back for much of the second half. However, Mourinho headed off down the tunnel a happy man after Antonio Valencia gleefully accepted a freak goal to secure all three points.
The Teessiders scored their first Premier League goal in more than six weeks, breaking a long overdue hoodoo that will have left Agnew feeling relieved. Until the first goal, momentum was with Boro, who enjoyed 75 percent possession in some stages. The real green shoots were seen in the second half and with the introduction of Rudy Gestede and Adama Traore, who brought some punch to proceedings and elevated the home side's appearance above their current league position.
Boro are keenly missing a number of key defenders including Calum Chambers, Daniel Ayala and George Friend. The weakness of the back four is back-filled with the midfield force of Adam Clayton and Marten de Roon, but this often holds the side back in terms of getting forward and doing it quickly. A welcome injection of pace from Traore released the pressure on the defence and will have left Boro feeling aggrieved that it wasn't a much closer shave for Mourinho's men.
Manager rating out of 10
7 -- Agnew stuck to Karanka's trusted formation and set-up for his first game in charge. Like the last time Agnew ran the show a year ago, Boro fell to a two-goal deficit in the end but there will be plenty of positives for him to mull over during the international break. Expect him to take Boro down a more directional route when they head to Swansea next time out, and he has more defensive players at his disposal.
Player ratings (1-10; 10 = best. Players introduced after 70 minutes get no rating)
GK Victor Valdes, 8 -- An almost faultless performance from the Spanish stalwart, who played out of his skin except for a painful slip that gifted Valencia the easiest of goals in the final moments of the game.
DF Ben Gibson, 6 -- Gibson was subpar on the day but had his work cut out trying to cover all bases in a ragged and flat-footed Boro defence that is missing key players to injury.
DF Bernardo Espinosa, 3 -- Backing off the opposition attack, losing his man and getting caught ball-watching -- just a few of Bernardo's crimes on Sunday. Gibson will be sorely missing his partner in crime in the injured Chambers as Bernardo is simply not up to scratch.
DF Antonio Barragan, 4 -- Today was tough for Barragan, who was run ragged by Jesse Lingard. The gaps that he left made it easy for United to capitalise down the left and to score what were two easy goals before Agnew changed things up.
DF Fabio, 5 -- Fabio's athleticism made him a good outlet but he struggled to make Boro's attacking possession count with some wasteful balls into the box on a windy afternoon on Teesside.
MF Marten de Roon, 6 -- In typical fashion, the Dutchman made a nuisance of himself and fought like a tiger to keep Boro in the decent possession that they enjoyed.
MF Adam Clayton, 7 -- This was yet another solid showing from the reliable midfield talisman who will have wanted to make his mark after learning his trade at Manchester City as a youngster.
MF Grant Leadbitter, 7 -- Continuing to show why the grit and steel that he embodied in last season's promotion campaign is still as relevant in the Premier League, Leadbitter made himself essential, linking up well with Fabio and Gaston Ramirez on the left wing.
MF Gaston Ramirez, 6 -- "Refreshed" and "revitalised" are the best adjectives to describe the Uruguayan, who seemed to have much more verve and interest in proceedings than in recent performances. Got himself into the box and had a couple of chances that could have changed the game.
MF Stewart Downing, 6 -- Looked to spark creative play and open up the United defence with his movement, ultimately setting up Gestede's goal. He put in a strong performance after a week that showed his discontentment with the way of the world under Karanka.
FW Alvaro Negredo, 5 -- A worrying presence for United to contend with and his header from inside the penalty box had to be saved by David De Gea but his colleagues could hack it clear.
FW Rudy Gestede, 6 -- Gestede's arrival on 67 minutes changed Boro's mindset and had United under the cosh as they struggled to deal with long balls pumped into the box and aimed at Gestede. His goal on the 77th minute marked the first time that Boro have found the back of the net in more than eight hours.
MF Adama Traore, 5 -- Traore's pace is a sight for sore Boro eyes and will certainly have had Mourinho worried for the final 20 minutes of the game. He always brings the much-needed ingenuity to a static Boro side and helps to get bother bodies forward with his momentum.
Catherine Wilson ESPN FC's Middlesbrough blogger. You can follow her on Twitter: @Basslady