Stoke City's late strike prevented Middlesbrough from taking home all three points after a thoroughly dominating display.
Middlesbrough put in a dominant display in possession, yet Stoke City would score first, Brown slotting the ball past Manchester City goalkeeper Zack Steffen. Middlesbrough's head coach and players were dumbfounded that the goal stood after referee Michael Salisbury missed a blatant foul on Isiah Jones in the build-up. To Salisbury's credit, he stood up, admitted and apologised for his mistake at halftime. However, the damage had been done at that point, and it would be another test of their fighting spirit to turn the game around.
Boro responded with much of the same control over the game, creating a flood of chances, two of which were converted, directly and indirectly, by Duncan Watmore. However, despite their best efforts, Wilder's men entered the final stages of the game with just a one-goal advantage. A subsequent late strike by D'Margio Wright-Phillips nullified Boro's advantage leaving both parties with a single point from the altercation.
Everyone of Middlesbrough persuasion was shocked by the result after seeing the side put in one of their most dominant displays in recent years. There is a general feeling that the side was hard done by the result and that their performance deserved all three points. However, after four league games, the club is still searching for its first win of the season.
Here is what we learned from Middlesbrough's draw with Stoke City.
A referee has one of the most demanding jobs in football. It is up to these individuals to ensure that a match is played fairly and within the remit of the rules. They are expected to make marginal split-second decisions with accuracy and precision. While simultaneously maintaining agency in how and when to let the game go, call advantage, or discipline a player that steps out of line. So a good refereeing performance must be praised, and Michael Salisbury deserves to be acknowledged for the vast majority of his conduct in the Stoke City game.
Nonetheless, it is also vital that we criticise referees when they make clear and obvious mistakes, as this pressure is needed to maintain and improve the standards of refereeing in the Championship. Discussing these mistakes is even more imperative when they play a crucial role in the match's outcome.
In this instance, a foul on Jones instigated a Stoke City counterattack, which allowed Brown to slot past Zack Steffen. Middlesbrough made their complaints heard directly following the incident and after the goal was chalked up for Stoke City. But, ultimately, their claims fell on deaf ears giving Michael O'Neil's side the advantage.
The referee, Michael Salisbury, would sympathise with Middlesbrough's complaints when he saw the replays at halftime, taking the time to apologise to Chris Wilder during the break showing both admirable humble character and a desire to manage the game as best as he can.
Meanwhile, it would have been easy for Middlesbrough's heads to drop after conceding an unjust goal against the run of play. However, Wilder's men admirably picked themselves up and continued as they started. They would dominate possession and score two goals before being pegged back by a late Wright-Phillips goal. Nonetheless, their determined performance after their initial complaints showed that the side has a winning mentality. If and when the side's luck changes, Middlesbrough have the mental characteristics to challenge at the top.
It is also hard not to speculate about the outcome if that goal had been disallowed. A two-goal deficit would likely have been too significant for Stoke City to overcome, giving Middlesbrough their first win of the season. However, Middlesbrough can only control their influence on the game, and they have to find a way to turn spin-out wins regardless of the other effects on the game.
Middlesbrough's habit of controlling the ball continued into their clash with Stoke City, as Wilder's side had 60% possession. Yet, Middlesbrough's control of the game seemed far greater than the statistics suggest, with periods of consistent possession passing without any intervention from Michael O'Neill's side. Boro's seeming dominance extending beyond the statistics says something about the side's ability to fashion turnovers without Stoke building anything substantial while in possession. Yet, it also indicates a change in momentum in the final third game, which was more identifiable retrospectively.
Despite the shift in momentum in the latter part of the game aside, Middlesbrough kept control of possession and certainly appeared to be the stronger side. However, it was not just possession for possession's sake; Middlesbrough frequently formed opportunities. Meanwhile, Boro was not plagued with the age-old issue of having meaningless and ineffective possession in defence. The side's almost equal spread of possession between defence (26.1%) and midfield (26.25%) shows that they also had little to no difficulty progressing through the thirds. The Potters' passive defensive style did help to facilitate Boro's transitions, but this should not take anything away from the passing patterns that Wilder has drilled into his side, not least since a similar distribution of possession can be seen in games against more proactive defensive sides.
Conversely, some fans criticised Middlesbrough's passing play dismissing it as prioritising aesthetics over effective attacks. However, this feels like an unfair evaluation of Middlesbrough's passing possession-based play in the final third. Chris Wilder's side is joint top on goals scored per game, averaging 1.8 successful strikes each outing, showing a prolific ability to score despite facing some formidable opponents at the start of the season. In addition, a side's xG (expected goals) indicates the team's ability to create goalscoring opportunities, which means how successful a team's tactics are for creating opportunities. So the side's 6.9 xG, the highest in the league by a whole goal, shows how offensively proficient Wilder's well-drilled passing tactics are.
Middlesbrough would have scored three or four goals on a different day at Stoke City, as their shot scatter shows a chaotic example of the side's persistent attempts to put the game to bed. However, Boro's forwards didn't underperform either. Middlesbrough produced two goals from an xG of 1.91, showing they were as clinical as expected from the chances created. Middlesbrough's forwards could and may need to outcompete the expected output, but this is a problem to address once the attacking recruitment drive is complete. Instead, the defence was the primary failing against Stoke City.
Middlesbrough's relatively prolific attacking form has been undermined by defensive issues. As a result, Boro has conceded more goals per game than any other side in the Championship. If they continue in their current form, conceding two goals on average per match, there will not be a promotion charge.
These defensive difficulties are unusual for Middlesbrough. In recent history, Boro has been a strong side defensively but struggled to match their defensive performances with goalscoring of their own. Now, it seems the shoe is on the other foot. Under Chris Wilder, Middlesbrough create many opportunities in each game, but they look vulnerable at times.
Despite their successes defensively last season, Chris Wilder has taken to adapting his back three, picking players more suited to his passing philosophy. The side has had just rewards for these adjustments going forwards, with Middlesbrough playing it out from the back and utilising its wide centre-backs in passing exchanges in advanced areas. These changes have helped the side create more opportunities and thus score more goals, but it has come with a cost defensively.
Unsurprisingly, some fans have diagnosed it as an unforeseen consequence of Boro's new tactics. After all, Wilder's expansive style of football could expose the Middlesbrough defence, resulting in more opportunities for the opposition, which would result in the side conceding more goals. Their defensive slump also aligns with the deployment of these new tactics at the start of the season, as Boro were relatively solid under Wilder at the back end of last season.
However, this conclusion doesn't marry well with Boro conceding limited clearcut chances in each game this season or the statistics across the first four league games. Middlesbrough may have conceded a concerning eight goals this season, but during the same period, Wilder's side was only expected to concede 4.1 (xG against). Middlesbrough is currently conceding twice as many as the average side is expected to give up. Compared to their lowly stance on the goals conceded tally, Middlesbrough's xG against places them in a mediocre 11th place. While not the best in the league, this expected return alongside their goalscoring would have put them in a promising position early on in the season. Furthermore, Boro's comparatively low xG against shows that the side is not conceding too many high-conversion shots so far this season. To put it simply, Middlesbrough's current tactical system is not leaving the defence too vulnerable. Instead, the unfortunate truth is that the diagnosis can be found in the personnel's recent defensive performances.
Middlesbrough's defensive recruits aren't poor players; every one of Middlesbrough's defensive options deserves their place in the squad after impressive performances in previous seasons, and there have been positive facets of their game away from their defensive failures this season.
Darragh Lenihan has been consistently impressive for Blackburn Rovers, and his departure at the end of his contract was against the wishes of Rovers. Lenihan has also put in some very good performances at the start of his Middlesbrough career. Yet he has been one piece in a struggling defensive jigsaw. There is no doubting his ability, but time will be needed for him to adjust to the team and the team to adjust to him.
Anfernee Dijksteel was one of Boro's top performers last season from right centre-back; he is one of the best defenders in the league when playing in a high line, and his recovery pace was invaluable at times last season. Dijksteel has also had an influence in transition and, in the final third, fulfilling Wilder's new instructions with ease. However, Dijksteel is prone to mistakes and looks shaky when defending the box as his less aggressive 'hands-off' approach is exposed and exploited.
Marc Bola has been an astute player as a wingback in previous seasons, becoming a dependable option for both Neil Warnock and Chris Wilder. As with Dijksteel, Bola has taken to his progressive instructions like a duck to water culminating in his chance against Stoke City. However, he is adjusting to a new role and lacks the presence often needed of a central defender in the Championship. He may come good in the left centre-back role, but it may take a considerable period for him to learn the new position, and that is time that Wilder doesn't have this season.
Isiah Jones and Ryan Giles are expected to contribute defensively, but their priority is in the attacking areas of the pitch. The attacking onus that the wingbacks have in Wilder's system is highlighted by Giles' average position against Stoke City. This offensive first mentality can occasionally leave the back three exposed, but overall, they have been more than solid performers this season.
To come full circle, these players have been picked, partly due to how they fit into Wilder's system, with Marc Bola and Anfernee Dijksteel playing pivotal roles in his passing sequences. An adjustment to their instructions that they have taken in their stride, impressing in transition and attacking phases of the game. However, this makes it very hard to offer any concrete long-term changes to personnel. As a result, there are only two possible options. Wilder could either replace Dijksteel with McNair, or Lenihan with Fry. Both of these options could improve the side's lacklustre defensive form, and these alternatives should be allowed to stake a claim for a starting birth. Alternatively, their adaption to Wilder's tactics may mean that it could just be a matter of time before Wilder's first-choice defenders come good in the defensive third, becoming the ideal Wilder-style centre-backs.
Reviewing these options only further emphasises how important it is for Middlesbrough to bring in a left-footed centre-back. Despite his tireless work ethic, undoubted ability in the wide defensive areas, and his influence in other areas of the pitch, Bola is currently the weakest of the three centre-backs. This could change over time, but Middlesbrough does not have the time to see that development through this season if they want to challenge for promotion.
With Middlesbrough searching for their first win of the season, Wilder may opt for a different defensive lineup against Reading, or he could give his current defenders his vote of confidence, hoping he will be repaid with an improved outcome.