Middlesbrough's woes continued as they fell to a 2-1 defeat at the hands of Blackburn Rovers.
Despite Chris Wilder's departure from the club, Middlesbrough has continued to struggle for form. Many of the club's former top performers have looked out of sorts, and the excitement, which had driven much of the fans' expectations for this season, has been quashed.
The team returned to the Riverside Stadium following the defeat to Millwall last time out. In Blackburn Rovers, they were set to face a side more technically proficient than Millwall and one which would ask different questions of Leo Percovich's side.
Millwall demanded a physical challenge, while Blackburn Rovers were more passive. They sat in deep and challenged Middlesbrough to try and break them down. Blackburn's deep back five gave them a strong platform from which they could use their talented forwards. Blackburn relied on long diagonal balls into pacy mobile strikers to be a threat going forward, and they succeeded. Blackburn Rovers scored two goals against Middlesbrough in the first half to secure the win despite a consolation goal at the end of the first half.
The team's failure fueled the frustrations of the fans. There is a growing feeling that Middlesbrough has become directionless. The side meandering hiring methods and continued deployment of a 3-5-2 despite its very limited success only stoked the hot fire. Many fans have called upon chairman and owner Steve Gibson to talk about his future plans for the club to get the fans on the same page. While this is a possibility, until he addresses the public, it is up to fans and reporters alike to analyse the on-pitch reality for an insight into the direction of the club going forward.
When Middlesbrough sacked Neil Warnock to replace him with Chris Wilder, the message was clear: Stick with us. We have a plan. A message echoed by Wilder, who spoke about the 'Boro project' following his appointment and throughout his stay at the club.
However, Wilder's messaging did adjust during the start of the season as he took a shot at fans that had aspirations of promotion. It was clear that there was a miscommunication or change in the project following his rallying call after the last game of the season. Wilder would continue in charge of Boro, and his footballing philosophy was expected to become the identity of Middlesbrough going forward.
Chris Wilder's contract was terminated, with Boro dwindling in the relegation zone. Middlesbrough would look to Leo Percovich to take temporary charge. The decision to look internally for a temporary appointment showed that the change in management had not been planned as carefully as the quick switch between Warnock and Wilder.
While a safe pair of hands in the short term, particularly for a game or two, Leo Percovich has been seen by most as temporarily plastering over the cracks. The Uruguayan has experience in first-team coaching and a love for the club, but he has limited experience in such a major leadership role. Before the clash against Blackburn Rovers, he would make his aspirations for the permanent role public, but it would seem unwise.
To his credit, Leo won his first game in charge, albeit the only win to his name during his temporary charge. Also, Leo persevered with Wilder playing profile as it aligned with the club's wish for continuity between managerial reigns. The 3-5-2 would remain a feature in the side despite Wilder's departure, and, while more creative freedom was afforded to his side, they continued to follow similar patterns of play. However, his decision to stick to the same style and system may have played against his future prospects, as its limited success under Wilder continued under the guidance of Leo Percovich.
Admittedly, he has been limited in tactical options. The current squad is curated to fit Wilder's wingback style with a predominance of centre-backs, wingbacks, and a total lack of wingers. Any drastic changes would also take an adjustment period, and the nature of the caretaker head coach role means that he needs to get results and turn things around quickly if he is to earn the spot on a permanent basis. In turn, whether it is Leo's preferred style or not, the Uruguayan has to settle for it if he wishes to prove himself worthy.
However, the apparent lack of a change of direction on the pitch has frustrated fans that have seen a continuation of the same issues from Wilder's reign with a less experienced and less proven man at the helm.
The fans' concerns have only worsened through the protracted search for the next permanent replacement. The Middlesbrough faithful were expecting a quick appointment, with Leo Percovich only expected to steer the helm for a single game. However, three games and two weeks later, no such appointment has been made.
Naturally, appointing a manager can be a difficult process. It has to be the right profile for the club, and the right club for the coach. They often want to bring in their own coaching team, and that can have implications for those already employed at the club. While the contracts are often complicated, extensive and time-consuming to draw up.
However, the side has been linked with numerous head coaches with seemingly little movement towards a resolution. Michael Carrick, Carlos Corberan, Sean Dyche and Rob Edwards are just a few of that have been linked with the club over the past two weeks. These names alone highlight a further issue with the club's hiring process. Michael Carrick and Rob Edwards share a similar playing style, which would align with Boro's preferred style of play going forward. However, Carlos Corberan and Sean Dyche have gained reputations as pragmatic defence-first coaches. This could be a benefit in the short term as the side looks to shore up its defence, but choosing either of these as head coach could prove to be massively detrimental in the long run. It would pave the way for another extensive buying spree in the following windows as the squad would have to go through a massive re-shaping to suit both head coaches preferred playing styles.
Boro's future plans could hinge on their next appointment. The club needs to make a big enough of a change to fix their poor fortunes but not so big that the 'thread of continuity' dissolves in the process.
Middlesbrough was dismal in the first half against Blackburn Rovers. The side looked lethargic and painfully uninspired as they slumped to a 2-0 deficit. In the defensive third, the side looked unorganised, and Blackburn Rovers were like a child in a sweet shop against Boro's high line. In the final third, the side's inability to break down a low block resurfaced, with the side managing little more than occasional pot-shots at the Blackburn Rovers goal.
The side's disappointing first half pushed fans into sharing their frustrations about the side's continued use of 3-5-2. The formation that was brought to the club through Wilder, which has failed to bring the results expected, has remained at the forefront of Boro's downturn in form.
Leo Percovich did tweak the system against Blackburn Rovers. Instead, he opted for a 3-4-2-1 with Duncan Watmore and Hayden Hackney playing the roles behind the striker. This is a system that has been successfully adopted by other clubs, namely Chelsea under Thomas Tuchel, but it would prove to have a limited effect for Boro against Blackburn Rovers. The side's imbalance, focusing its attacks down the right-hand side, caused the two attacking midfielders to occupy the same space getting in the way of each other rather than providing a creative attacking threat which is equally distributed across the pitch. While this did indicate Leo Percovich's attempt to adjust the system to stop the current downfall, it was not greatly divorced from the side's usual look, and so the same issues persisted despite the changes.
Leo Percovich brought in a change of system in the second half. Middlesbrough went to a 4-3-3 formation and looked more dangerous. The stodgy possession issues that have occurred at times with a back three had all but disappeared, helping to improve the team's transitions. While the side managed to create opportunities, with the side finishing with a 2.02 xG, something that has been lacking in recent weeks. However, they failed to turn an improvement into any points, with the side ultimately falling to a 2-1 defeat.
It will be interesting to see if Leo Percovich persists with a take on the 3-5-2 formation against Wigan in midweek if he remains in post at that point. Instead, he could start with a four at the back formation which he believes is better suited to the strengths and weaknesses of the current squad.
Middlesbrough's summer recruit has had a mixed season to date. But the clash with Blackburn would prove to be a real measure of his development and form since arriving on Teesside.
A captain and mainstay in the Blackburn Rovers team, he built a large proportion of his reputation while at Rovers. The Rovers faithful took their victory over Middlesbrough as an opportunity to mock Lenihan's decision to depart the club for the struggling Teessiders. The Irish international did play a key role in his previous sides successes, but he has struggled to have the same influence following his summer transfer. It is still early days and he is still settling in to life on Teesside so his best is likely to come. However, the comparison brought on by the arrival of Blackburn Rovers was jarring.
Lenihan secured a first team starter birth instantaneously following his arrival with Wilder billing him as an integral part of his plans. The Irish man did repay the former Sheffield United manager's faith in him with some very solid performances in defence. However, Wilder's decision to opt for Lenihan over Fry brought increasing criticisms as the side struggled defensive issues. These defensive issues were not so much an issue when Fry played in the central centre back role during the previous season. Wilder would look to satiate calls for Lenihan to be replaced by Fry with the Boro-born centre back playing in one of the wide centre back roles where he looked less than comfortable.
Lenihan's start to life at Middlesbrough would also be marred by disciplinary issues as a red card dismissal became a talking point in Boro's defeat to QPR. He then suffered an injury which further limited his game time. Fry would take his place and excel in his return to the central centre back spot before putting in consistently strong performances. Meanwhile, Lenihan worked on his recovery from his injury. He would return to full fitness presenting the coaching staff with a conundrum. How do you fit the Irish international in the side?
Fry had done enough to keep his place in the squad following Lenihan's unfortunate injury. However, this could have presented an opportunity for him to regain the right centre back birth which had been his home at Blackburn Rovers. Yet, another unfortunate injury would displace the Irish international once more. Matt Clarke's nerve tissue damage opened up a gap on the left hand side of the back three. Marc Bola had attempted to play in this position with admittedly limited success as he was vulnerable to certain situations defensively. Darragh Lenihan was seen as the safer pair of hands and he was propped up as the left centre back.
Lenihan looked uncomfortable in this role against Millwall. His positioning left something to be desired as his natural presuppositions caused him to hold too narrow of a line. When the opposition found a way beyond wingback Marc Bola, he struggled to show them into less dangerous areas. His struggles on the left hand side would prove to be a point of weakness at the Den.
The Ireland international would play an role in Boro's transition woes against Millwall too. The 28-year-old is heavily right footed which forces him into playing either the central centre back or left centre back when the left wing back or central midfielder is a clear possible progressive passes. His predisposition to playing the ball to the right hand side slowed down play and transition weakening the team going forward.
The game against Blackburn Rovers followed the same pattern. However, this timethe long diagonal balls put him under more pressure 1-on-1 with some of the best direct finishers in the league. His limitations playing left centre back were exposed on multiple occasions with Blackburn's attackers breaking beyond Lenihan into goalscoring opportunities.
Lenihan would also play a direct role in one of Blackburn's goals as a well-worked corner bounced off the centre back and beyond his goalkeeper. However, in his defence, there was little more that Lenihan could do in that situation and so should be alieviated from too much criticism here. Instead, it is the general play which caused the greatest concern.
Middlesbrough would switch to a back four in the second half and Lenihan's typical composed confidence returned with him becoming a formidable foe once more. His passing from a more central space was still more conservative than would have been ideal but it had less of an impact on the teams transitions overall. Meanwhile, his straying into more central positions became what was expected of him in a two man pairing at the heart of the defence. He clearly seemed more comfortable in this role and his before vs. after performance is another reason to advocate for a back four formation going forwards.
Lenihan is a very good centre back at this level but playing him on the opposite side to his stronger foot has proven to be an issue. Middlesbrough and Leo Percovich have two options going forwards. The can persist with a back three. In this system, a trio of Lenihan, Fry and Clarke could be a formidable opponent. However, some of the previous issues may persist with similar systems to Wilders preferred 3-5-2. Alternatively, they could opt for a back four. If they pick to play with two centre backs then the question becomes 'which player are they going to leave out?'. As a left footed centre back, Clarke is likely to make the left birth his own as long as he can show the performances that have recently resulted in two Player of the Year awards. In turn, Lenihan and Fry would have to compete for the final right centre back birth. The competition between the two would bring about the same comparisons that plagued Lenihan's early appearances. However, such competition can only be of benefit to the side in the long run.
There is undoubted defensive talent at Middlesbrough at the moment. The key is getting the best out of them to improve their concerning defensive form of recent months.