In-depth analysis of Hartlepool United's 4-0 defeat against Middlesbrough
Hartlepool United’s 4-0 defeat at home to Middlesbrough provided a lot of talking points regarding Craig Hignett’s side ahead of the coming National League season.
The match at the Super 6 Stadium provided Pools with their first real test of the summer so far as they went up against a relatively full-strength Championship outfit.
Boro had so far looked unconvincing in pre-season with a defeat in Austria followed by a 3-1 win against National League North side Gateshead last Wednesday.
But on Sunday, Jonathan Woodgate’s side were sharp from the start and more than raised the bar for Craig Hignett’s team at the midway point in pre-season.
An early goal from Marcus Tavernier got things off to a flyer for the visitors before Pools started to find their way back into the game and create chances for themselves.
But a quickfire double just before half-time courtesy of Rudy Gestede and Aden Flint put Boro in control at the break. United still continued to show endeavour and came close to pulling a goal back on several occasions before George Saville hammered in the Teessiders’ fourth around the hour mark.
“It was a different game to what we’re used to but I’m pleased with it because it was a really tough test and I thought we played some good stuff,” said Hignett.
“I thought we had a lot of the ball. The bit for me was the final third and how clinical they were compared to what we were.”
Gavan Holohan and Luke Molyneux came closest for the hosts in the first half before Gime Toure struck the post from a Nicke Kabamba rebound.
Despite the scoreline, a positive Pools will be able to take away from the match is the number of chances they created against a quality defensive side.
But for the Hartlepool manager, it was a case of a lot of the ‘little bits’ that proved to be the difference.
“We looked a threat, we looked powerful and caused Middlesbrough some problems which is encouraging,” Hignett added.
“But there’s some little bits like from a corner where they’re breaking out we need to get everyone behind the ball but we don’t.
“Fraser (Kerr) for the second, he’s with (Martin) Braithwaite and should go all the way with him but doesn’t then Braithwaite turns and plays a ball and they score.
“The decision-making from them was excellent and that’s what I’ve said to lads in there. I go on in training about being clinical and hitting the target, not being happy with nearly scoring and that’s the difference.
“Call it what you want, call it nous, call is game-management. We need to stop people, we need to foul here and there and bump people to stop them running, and talk to each other.
“We didn’t do enough of the little bits whereas I thought Middlesbrough were excellent and when they got a chance it was in the net.”
Hartlepool’s pre-season so far has been an encouraging one overall. Taking into account the level of opposition they’ve faced, Pools have still looked fit and sharp, which is the key focus in the run-up to the competitive season.
Hignett admitted the game had taught him more about his side than the opening three matches against Northern League opposition combined, as he looks to gear his side up for a successful season in the National League.
United get their league season underway at the Super 6 Stadium against Sutton United on August 3. But first they travel to York City on Wednesday before hosting Sheffield United under-23s and League Two side Macclesfield.
“The Middlesbrough game gave me the chance to see where we’re short and what we can do better,” Hignett continued.
“Those sloppy mistakes we were making in the opening three matches weren’t getting punished whereas when you come up against Middlesbrough, they were.
“We won’t be tested by that sort of quality every week so defensively there are things we can work on particularly.
“The little things, when you’ve got people in front of you and you’re all breaking out, there’s just little things like making a clever foul and stand in front of the ball so we don’t get stretched.
“When you’re with your man, don’t let him turn, don’t drop off and try and recover into your position because with the quality they’ve got you won’t be able to.
“If they’ve only got one up front and he’s dropping behind people, you need to communicate with your back four and two centre-halves. There was lots for us to work on but it all boils down to the two boxes really and how clinical you are.
“I’ve been going on about being clinical since the start of pre-season and driving the standards up.
“It’s not just throwing 11 people out there and saying ‘go and play this way,’ there’s a method to how we’re doing it and the teams that we pick.
“Everything leading up to the first game will be seeing what works and trying different things. Now we’re getting to the stage where we want to be playing the team that will start on the opening day.”