In many ways Brighton are a template of the type of team Michael Carrick hopes to turn Middlesbrough into and, with Alexis MacAllister scoring twice, they certainly set an example to aspire to. Even before Mac Allister’s second-half introduction Roberto De Zerbi’s side were on top, but the World Cup winner fully emphasized the gap between fifth in the Championship and eighth in the Premier League.
From the moment Mac Allister scored his first goal, an outrageous backheel, no one could possibly argue that Brighton did not deserve their place in the FA Cup’s fourth round. A run of six wins in seven Championship games had bolstered Boro but, despite some encouraging pass-and-move cameos from Carrick’s players, this match was a reminder that they remain in the early stages of the former England and Manchester United midfielder’s overhaul.
“We played very well,” said De Zerbi. “It was more difficult than the scoreline suggests, Middlesbrough are a good team but Alexis is a top-quality player and very important for us. Winning the World Cup has improved his confidence about him.”
By Teesside standards it was quite mild but De Zerbi took the precaution of layering up by pulling on a second coat at kick-off. He made four changes from the side which won comfortably at Everton on Tuesday but, resisting the temptation to rotate, Carrick fielded Boro’s strongest available starting X1.
His defense was quickly confounded as Evan Ferguson’s clever ball permitted the excellent Solly March to test Zack Steffen’s reflexes. Although Boro’s Manchester City loanee goalkeeper repelled the resultant shot, Pascal Gross steered the rebound home.
Brighton’s former Boro goalkeeper Jason Steele looked mortified after Chuba Akpom connected with Ryan Giles’s clever, chipped cross, rose imperiously above his marker and sent a header goalwards. Steele touched the ball on to the inside of a post but it bounced off him en route to the back of the net.
Ignoring the goalkeeping assistance, Akpom celebrated his 10th goal in 11 games and 14th of the season with the joy of a forward whose conversion by Carrick to a slightly deeper “in the hole” role is paying dividends. Giles, at fault in the preamble to Gross’s goal, simply looked relieved.
Although Steele swiftly enjoyed a redemptive moment of his own as he saved superbly from the counterattacking Riley McGree, Brighton were generally far too quick and slick for Carrick’s team. They deservedly regained the lead when the dangerous Kaoru Mitoma volleyed March’s deep cross over Steffen and the stooping Adam Lallana applied the final touch from point-blank range.
Brighton were clearly superior but Carrick’s players are talented too and they did not allow their visitors to have things all their own way. Indeed in the albeit increasingly rare moments when Boro attacked and their fluid, ultra-flexible default 4-2-3-1 formation morphed into a temporary 3-5-2, they suggested better days lie ahead.
De Zerbi clearly judged their threat sufficient to introduce Mac Allister at half-time. Fresh from Qatar’s winter warmth and the subsequent celebrations amid an Argentinian summer, the gloved newcomer assumed a central attacking-midfield role.
He was soon pulling all sorts of strings, reinforcing the point by scoring Brighton’s third courtesy of an audacious flick of the sort Lionel Messi would treasure. A wonderfully delicate left-footed touch succeeded in amusing Pervis Estupiñán’s shot beyond Steffen. Confidence bolstered, Mac Allister then timed a run into the box to perfection and, having met Gross’s low cross, slid in his second goal, right-footed.
Long before the substitute Deniz Undav made it five after being cued up by March it had turned into a masterclass from the visitors.
“I though we did really well, actually,” said Carrick. “Brighton have so much quality; a lot of people don’t realize how good they’ve become. They did to us exactly what we’re trying to do to Championship teams.”