Middlesbrough finally broke their five-game winless run with a comfortable 2-1 victory over Swansea.
Chris Wilder's Middlesbrough was still in pursuit of their first win of the season when they trundled onto the Riverside pitch over the weekend. Yet, they were going to face a good opportunity to turn around this poor form. Swansea, a side with similar aspirations this season, travelled to the North East with just one win from five games. The 20th-placed South Wales side was also looking to pick up points to kick start their season. However, the Jacks would travel home empty-handed after Boro wrestled all three points away from them.
Goals from Riley McGree and Matt Crooks helped them on their way to all three points. However, their win was troubled after Joel Piroe converted the penalty awarded against Chris Wilder's side. Despite continued pressure following the penalty, Swansea struggled to create many clear cut opportunities, and Boro held on to take all three points.
Here are three things we learnt from Boro's first win of the season.
Few, if any, Boro fans would have expected Middlesbrough to start the season with a winless run. Chris Wilder's side largely impressed in the second half of last season. Yet, they did look a little stale during the latter stages of the season. The side downturn in form was largely owed to the compact run of fixtures as Wilder's side made up for games missed during the club's impressive cup run. However, as the winless run dragged on, some fans began to see Boro's poor early run as an extension of the poor form that the side signed off last season with.
It is understandable why some fans made this connection, as the points record spanning from the back end of last season didn't make for good reading. However, their performances at the start of the season do not match the ailments that caused Boro to fall short of the top six last season. Middlesbrough has put in some impressive performances against notable opposition, including West Brom and Sheffield United. While throughout this early period, Wilder's side has looked energetic, as opposed to the lethargy that posed a real problem at the end of last season. Yet, the longer Boro's winless run continued, the bigger a concern it caused. Boro has to face promotion favourites, Watford, before derby day against Sunderland in the next two games. So, even at this early stage, Swansea felt like a turning point in Middlesbrough's season. A win could kick-start Boro's season, but, failing that, Middlesbrough could have fallen into a sticky quagmire. Middlesbrough has some of the best fans in the Championship, but they could have turned after such a poor start which would only worsen a difficult situation.
Middlesbrough ended up securing their crucial win, and the relief was palpable in the stands. There is a general feeling that this will be a turning point for Middlesbrough. They were deserving of the three points, and although they are set to face a difficult challenge in mid-week, there is a belief that this will continue into the foreseeable future.
Same System, Different Tactics
Boro's win did come with a caveat: Middlesbrough has yet to get a win using Wilder's preferred tactics.
Chris Wilder opted to use different tactics to get the better of Russell Martin's possession-based Swansea City side. He conceded his usual claim over possession, allowing the Swans to dominate possession, turning out 61% of the ball. Instead, he instructed his side to sit in and be disciplined, making it difficult for Swansea to play through the thirds with their usual patient passing. When there was a turnover of possession, Wilder's side broke and countered with pace and purpose.
Chris Wilder hedged a bet that consistent possession without any pressure would lead to complacency. A bet that bore fruit for Middlesbrough's first goal of the game. A wayward pass from young prospect Cameron Congreve was seized upon in the Swansea half. Moments later, McGree was played in by Matt Crooks to convert past goalkeeper Andrew Fisher.
Boro's first goal may have been a stellar example of Wilder's opportunistic pressing, but it was far from the only one. Middlesbrough were more aggressive around the middle third, with a mixture of committed tackling, bad touches from Swansea and their failure to adequately protect the ball in the overloaded middle third caused consistent turnovers, particularly in the early period of the game.
In possession, Chris Wilder's focus on the flanks for attacking impetus continued. The side's limited possession resulted in fewer touches in the middle of the park, as Wilder looked to quickly get the ball into the wide spaces. Once in the attacking third, Wilder's side would look to feed the ball into the box, either through crosses or through balls, resulting in the vast majority of the side's chances against Swansea.
Despite an apparent change to his tactics, Wilder stuck with a familiar system against Swansea. The 3-5-1-1 has been a frequent feature of Middlesbrough's early season run. The formation gives a manager the stability of a back three and numerical superiority in midfield, but at the cost of attacking threat with Watmore and Muniz often cutting an isolated figure up front. In previous fixtures, Wilder used this formation to pack out the midfield and funnel play through the wide areas without being exposed to counterattacks on transition. Against Swansea, Middlesbrough used this formation to clog up the midfield to make it very difficult for Russell Martin's side to play it through the middle with their preferred short passing style. The formation, and the packed midfield, played a key role in the previously mentioned high turnover in the middle third of the pitch.
The adjustment of Boro's tactics has to be seen as a masterstroke from Chris Wilder. He recognised that his side would not be able to go toe-to-toe with Swansea in possession, and so he evaded that battle to win the war. Instead, Boro deployed a blockade at halfway and in front of their box to protect the goal. In attack, Wilder ordered his side to use fast purposeful skirmishes to outdo Swansea going the other way. The most important thing is that it worked. Middlesbrough managed to net twice to Swansea's one, and they kept all three points. Chris Wilder now has a tried and tested formula for possession-based sides. This gives Boro a game plan when they face other possession-based opponents; with this, Middlesbrough looks more likely to win points against the likes of Vincent Kompany's Burnley.
Yet, as things stand, Middlesbrough has yet to win a game with Wilder's preferred tactics. In all likelihood, Chris Wilder will revert back to the possession-based game plan against Watford and Sunderland. The former Sheffield United manager will be in pursuit of his first win with the club under these tactics, but it would be no mean feat in these two difficult fixtures.
The Matt Magic:
Middlesbrough's first win of the season was a massive team effort. It needed everyone to be at their best so that there were no chinks in the armour. But a few players stood out from the crowd after very impressive performances.
New arrival, Matt Clarke was a revelation at left centre back. The former Brighton Hove & Albion defender highlighted exactly what the team was missing when Bola played placeholder in the back three. He looked so solid when defending, never looking phased when Swansea leaned on the new component of the defence. Clarke's success defensively is mirrored in his statistics from the game as he made six defensive contributions, two tackles, two interceptions and four clearances. Matt Clarke's impressive debut could be a sign of things to come, if his two player of the season accolades at West Brom and Derby County are anything to go by. This could be a very astute recruitment from Middlesbrough.
Middlesbrough's other top performer has also been out of the starting line up. However, rather than being a new recruit that has only arrived days before kickoff against Swansea, Matt Crooks was left out of the side as he recovered from illness. Boro did not miss home all that greatly in the 2-2 draw against against Sheffield United. He was sorely missed in the Stoke City game as the 28 year old could have provided the cutting edge to put the game beyond doubt. He did come on in the latter stages against the Potters but he failed to get to speed with the game as he continued his recovery from illness. He would return to action in the next game against Reading, playing in the second half. However, he wouldn't step into his own until he got the nod to start against Swansea.
Matt Crooks' combative style was integral to the sides defensive structure. It prevented the opposition from breaking through the lines. However, it was during periods of possession that Matt Crooks truly excelled. Crooks played with high risk and high reward. It succeeded. The 28 year old broke out of midfield when Congreve made a miss placed pass, seizing on it and then a threaded pass into Riley McGree for the first goal of the game. Creator would turn finisher in for the second goal as he turned a low cross into the bottom of Andrew Fisher. These two key moments alone were vital to the sides first win of the season but his all round game showed that he isn't just a momentary influence. He consistently influences the game, defensively, in transition and in the final third. He is far from perfect but when he is at his best he can be a very impressive performer.
Chris Wilder will be hoping that the two Matt's can reignite their magic today at Watford. His side may need all the help they can get as they take on the Hornets. Rob Edward's side are favourites to return to the Premier League this season. They will pose a serious threat for Middlesbrough, but Chris Wilder will step up to the challenge. Lets hope his men will follow suit. It could be a fascinating game.