Ruthless, clinical and devastating. Three adjectives which have not been used to describe Sheffield Wednesday in recent seasons.
But they were the words which manager Garry Monk – in just his fourth game in charge of the Owls – enthused after watching his side deliver an opening 45 minutes of pure quality.
First-half goals from Dominic Iorfa, Adam Reach, Steven Fletcher and an Adam Clayton own-goal were reward for an away performance which stunned most inside the Riverside.
“We showed how devastating we can be in the first half,” said Monk, back at Middlesbrough, the club who sacked him as manager 21 months ago. “I thought we were exceptional in the first half. We were ruthless, clinical and really followed the game plan.”
That game plan meant Monk opted for two physical strikers – in Fletcher and Atdhe Nuhiu – and looked to exploit Boro at set-pieces and crosses.
“It was something we targeted in the week,” said Monk. “I just felt there was a vulnerability with Middlesbrough in those situations. We were devastating. We scored good quality goals with good quality deliveries.”
It was sloppy, I’m not going to sit up here and say it was good, it was terrible, it wasn’t good enough.Jonathan Woodgate
The last time Wednesday scored four goals away from home was over five years ago, at Bournemouth.
So few would have predicted the glut of goals from the visitors – four in 29 minutes to be precise – before half-time.
Barry Bannan was key, his near-post corner flicked into his own net by Clayton after just five minutes.
Sixty seconds later, and Scotland international Bannan delivered a teasing free-kick which picked out defender Iorfa to make it 2-0.
Boro, to their credit, stayed calm and Paddy McNair smashed home a half-cleared corner to cut the deficit on 19 minutes.
But the home fans were left cursing a former Boro player, winger Reach, four minutes later.
The £5m Owls signing from Boro in 2016, was allowed to cut inside and curl an effort beyond Darren Rudolph.
It was just too easy for Wednesday, and Reach dinked a back-post cross to Fletcher, who headed in the visitors’ fourth goal on 34 minutes.
The hosts looked vulnerable to every aerial cross – Julian Borner and Fletcher spurned free headers – and while the introduction of Dani Ayala at half-time helped strengthen Boro’s defensive resolve, it needed Randolph to deny Wednesday a fifth in the second half, saving shots from Moses Odubajo and substitute Sam Winnall.
But it was Britt Assombalonga – the £15m striker signed by Monk, while in charge at the Riverside in 2017 – who was the biggest culprit when it came to missed chances after the break.
First, with just goalkeeper Keiren Westwood to beat from Ashley’s Fletcher header, the striker dragged his tame shot wide.
Then, when played in by Marvin Johnson, Assombalonga did the tricky bit in rounding Westwood, but from the corner of the eight-yard box, somehow found the side-netting.
A Boro comeback, though, would only have papered over the cracks of some terrible defending from the Teessiders.
Home boss Jonathan Woodgate – a dominant centre-half in his own playing days with Leeds United, Tottenham and Real Madrid, who relished the physical contest – looked stunned.
“It was sloppy, I’m not going to sit up here and say it was good, it was terrible, it wasn’t good enough,” he said.
“I played a few games at centre-half as you know and you pride yourself by winning aerial battles, no matter who you are up against.
“I played against a lot of different players who are big units but you find a way to beat them in the air, getting yourself in the right position, it’s about determination, who wants it more.
“We didn’t want it enough in that first half.”
Owls midfielder Bannan believes the Owls have a real chance this week – with games at Hull City tomorrow, and Wigan at Hillsborough on Saturday, and just three points behind leaders West Brom – to make a real statement of intent ahead of the international break.
“I think a lot of people will see it today and it will not surprise them but they will take a good look at it and think ‘wow’,” said Bannan, standing in as captain with Tom Lees injured. “We have got to send a statement this week. We have got three games and it is a great chance to stamp our authority in this league. We have started off well by putting four past Middlesbrough.
“It was a great result. The first half performance was nothing short of brilliant. I think the game plan we stuck to worked down to a tee and we were clinical in their box today.
“I have said it for a while now that we have got a result like that in us and someone was going to be on the end of it and it just so happened to be Middlesbrough.
“We have been working on set pieces since the new gaffer has come in and we have scored a few goals from them.”