Middlesbrough was victorious in the Tees-Wear derby thanks to a first-half strike from Riley McGree.
Boro's poor start to the season looks far rosier following their win over Sunderland. Despite only moving up to 17th in the table, a return of six points out of nine indicates that the team has turned a corner. It seems things are finally starting to click at the Riverside Stadium. Their promising performances at the start of the season did not get the result they deserved, but that wasn't the case against Sunderland.
The atmosphere in the stadium was electric as the fans spurred their side on to victory. Chris Wilder's men responded with a comfortable win aside from a few shaky moments at the end of the match. However, the key moment in the game came with Riley McGree's finish. A calmly slotted shot under the goalkeeper following another impressive delivery from Ryan Giles. The goal gave Middlesbrough the advantage, but they didn't rest on their laurels. Chris Wilder's side would pummel the goal with some 15 shots. Their prolific shooting without prolific finishing showed a continuation of some of the side's issues this season. However, this time it wouldn't prove detrimental as Wilder's men held onto their one-goal advantage to keep all three points at the Riverside.
Tony Mowbray's men also gave a good account of themselves. Some of their phases of play were very promising, and they looked dangerous on occasion. Still, it's clear to see that the side is adjusting to the change in management, and that could have an effect in the short term.
Here are three things we learnt from Middlesbrough's win over Sunderland.
Plans A, B and C:
Chris Wilder has come into criticism for his lack of tactical diversity. The fans' complaints that the side was doing the same things but expecting different results culminated with Reading's victory over Middlesbrough. Chris Wilder's side fell to a three-goal deficit in the first half, and despite two consolation goals, there was a general feeling that it was a subpar performance. Many fans thought that despite hitting the back of the net, Middlesbrough's clear identity made them predictable and easy enough to defend against and that the side's defeat is in part due to the side being 'found out'.
Chris Wilder subsequently fielded questions on the subject prior to the game against Barnsley. He rejected those accusations pointing to the sides strong xG and xG against as reasons why they had not been found out, instead placing the blame at the feet of individual errors, decisive moments and plain bad luck. Chris Wilder certainly had a point. Middlesbrough has managed to create chances, and the side massively underperforming in relation to their xG against indicates that the system is still widely functional and successful. Nonetheless, there will come times when Middlesbrough are asked a different question, and it is important that Wilder has alternatives to his favoured possession-based tactics to call upon.
The former Sheffield United manager is not going to rip up the philosophy book when he deploys new systems. Instead, he will look to tweak and adjust his tactics to get the better of the opponent while leaving the key facets of his philosophy intact. He showed this to be the case against Swansea. The South Wales side is heavily possession-based. Instead of challenging them for possession, Wilder conceded a large percentage of it in order to get the best of them. However, in doing so, Wilder did not change his favoured system. This worked only to increase the success of his tactical adjustment as Russel Martin saw his side's control of possession as a success of his own tactics over that of his rivals, stopping him from making adjustments to counteract it.
Contradictorily, Wilder did change his system in-game. With Middlesbrough 2-0 up, Chris Wilder looked to shut-up shop and protect his team's advantage. A decision he previously regretted not making. In order to protect the goal, Wilder brought on two key defensive substitutions: Marc Bola and Tommy Smith. Middlesbrough's wingbacks didn't come on in a like-for-like, though. Instead, they took to the field for Riley McGree and Matt Crooks. Middlesbrough went to a 5-4-1 for the remainder of the game. Despite Joel Piroe's converted penalty, the adjustment did enough to give Middlesbrough all three points. This formation shift would be repeated against Sunderland, showing that it wasn't a one-off.
The shift between two strikers and a striker and No. 10 aside (which will be discussed in more detail later on), Swansea was the first game that showed the side's potential for tactical diversity. However, it was against Sunderland that this diversity becomes a point of real interest.
Chris Wilder's side set out in a 3-5-1-1 formation that Middlesbrough fans have grown familiar with in recent weeks. This was Chris Wilder's plan A. The attacking midfielder is usually tasked with being the conduit between offensive and transition phases, or the connection between the midfield and the striker. He, in this case, Riley McGree, usually drops into midfield when out of possession to bulk up the midfield. While his runs off the ball help the side progress forwards in possession. Riley McGree has looked particularly convincing in this role so far this season, helping him to secure a role in the side despite questions over his defensive output. Chris Wilder's decision to keep this formation was an interesting one. In recent weeks, Middlesbrough has opted to give their developmental attacking recruits minutes in the under 21's over using them as a benchwarmer. That wasn't the case against Sunderland. Chris Wilder had all his forward recruits to call upon. However, he kept the same system, either backing Riley McGree's impressive form in recent weeks (which culminated in a goal against Sunderland) or seeing it as the best system to beat Sunderland.
Middlesbrough began with Chris Wilder's typical policy of dominating possession, which played a pivotal role in the side's 25th-minute goal. However, possession became more contentious after that, with Sunderland dominating the majority of possession for the remainder of the first half. However, despite Sunderland having 66% possession, it was Middlesbrough that looked more likely to capitalise. Wilder's side adopted a similar stance to the one seen against Swansea. They were more aggressive in the tackle and played with a very fast and direct tempo in attack resulting in three shots to Sunderland's one. Yet, they continued to show continuity in style and philosophy through their formation, and their attacking that remained focused on the flanks. Despite playing this way, it was Sunderland that racked up the most dribbles in the game, with Middlesbrough initiating their typical passing movements after quickly bursting into the opposition's third, again adding continuity and playing to the strengths of the side in those areas. This was Wilder's plan B. A similar pattern of play would follow in the second half, with Sunderland's continued domination of possession and Middlesbrough's explosive counterattacking style. Middlesbrough's aggressive attacking mentality gave the illusion that Wilder's men had far more than a 1/3 of possession, in either of these periods, which indicates just how successful it was in creating moments of attacking threat.
These tactics had a positive effect on the game against Tony Mowbray's possession-based team for the majority of the game. However, realising that a one-goal advantage was a tenuous position, Wilder returned to his previously favoured formation 3-5-2. This was Wilder's plan C. Wilder's shift from an attacking midfielder to two strikers was intended to give Middlesbrough a more clinical edge. When playing with a front two, Chris Wilder likes to have a player with a physical presence, in this case, Rodrigo Muniz, and a wily and energetic option, such as substitute Duncan Watmore. However, these plans would not bear fruit, with Middlesbrough failing to add to their advantage. Though it does show some tactical diversity.
Chris Wilder's final tactical switch came in the 90th minute. The momentum of the game was with Sunderland. Tony Mowbray's side had 80% possession from the 80th minute onwards, and Wilder decided it was time to make a switch. Once more, he called upon Marc Bola and Tommy Smith. The wingbacks came on for Mowatt and Muniz, and Middlesbrough dropped into a 5-4-1. These two defensive lines were put up in front of Liam Roberts' goal, with Chris Wilder sending the challenge to Tony Mowbray to break them down. It was clearly something that they had worked on as Middlesbrough stayed disciplined in this system, and Sunderland never really looked threatening. While Ryan Giles and Isiah Jones were ideal defensive wingers, their attacking impetus was converted into an intelligent time-wasting exercise, holding the ball at the opposition's corner flag.
At the end of the match, we discussed the game with some fans who believed Middlesbrough were lucky at the end of the game. An understandable evaluation, as the game state at that point, was clearly in Sunderland's favour. However, Middlesbrough actively encouraged the final moments to pan out that way for a reason. Sunderland is at their most dangerous when running at the opposition. The pace and dribbling ability of some of their frontmen makes them a dangerous outfit for just about any side. However, Middlesbrough dropped in deep with two lines of defenders. By setting themselves up this way, Middlesbrough removed the space needed to run into with the ball, nullifying one of their strongest attacking assets. So, despite dominating possession in the latter stages, it is no surprise that from the 90th minute onwards, Middlesbrough looked relatively safe. Admittedly, we looked a lot more vulnerable in the ten minutes prior to Chris Wilder's switch, though. If it wasn't for the actions of a few vital players, it could have turned out differently.
Middlesbrough's 25-year-old centre-back has been a point of contention between Chris Wilder and the Boro faithful. The previous first-choice defender has had to settle for second fiddle this season as Wilder calls on him to prove he deserves the starting birth over summer arrival Darragh Lenihan. It was Chris Wilder's decision to prioritise Lenihan's minutes over Fry's that have been faced with ridicule from the Boro fans. Dael Fry didn't put a foot wrong last season, and it seems harsh and unmeritocratic to usurp him. Instead, the emphasis should have been put on Lenihan to prove himself to be superior to Boro's academy graduate.
The complaints and frustrations of the Boro fans only worsened with Middlesbrough's poor start to the season. Middlesbrough's search for a win was largely due to the side's defensive frailties, and even after finally securing a win over Swansea, Chris Wilder's team had failed to keep a clean sheet all the way up to and including the game that resulted in Lenihan's unfortunate injury.
The fans growing calls for increased involvement for Fry pushed Wilder into an exasperated response calling on the player to prove his worth in training and show the mental attributes needed to earn a starting birth. While we don't know what happens behind the scenes at Rockcliffe Hall, this felt like a harsh rebuttal. Dael Fry presents himself as a quiet personality. He isn't as bold or aggressive as Lenihan would be in claiming his birth, but it shouldn't matter as he has consistently shown himself to be one of the best operators at this level. Nonetheless, Dael Fry was selected to face Reading and that only played to frustrate and irritate the Boro faithful.
Whether Wilder was motivated by the teams' poor form or the incessant calls for Fry's involvement, he picked the Boro-born defender to start at Reading. The first half at Reading was a disaster and Dael Fry, as part of the three, has to bear some of the responsibility for that 45 minutes. However, he was handicapped by Chris Wilder's team selection. Anyone who has had the privilege of watching him from the start of his career will know that he functions either as the central centre back or part of a back four. He cannot play as a wide centre-back. This is something that Chris Wilder should have been aware of, which just calls into question why he would opt to play him in such a role. Wilder is not one to make selection mistakes often, so he either was so desperate to fix the leaky defence to a point where he thought there was no harm in trying it. Or, conspiratorially, he put him in the wide centre-back role to sabotage him. After all, a poor performance would have quelled calls for his involvement. However, Fry also played a wide centre-back role in the cup, which would indicate that it is more likely the former than the latter reason. Either way, Dael Fry had to settle for the bench as Lenihan continued on injury free.
Chris Wilder's decision to prioritise Darragh Lenihan does make sense tactically. The Irish centre-back was widely praised for his passing capabilities at Blackburn Rovers. His range of passing and the focus on progressing the ball forwards aligned with Wilder's preferred tactics. Lenihan is more comfortable in a high line too. He is able to keep in line with his wide centre-backs allowing the side to catch runners in behind offside. While he wasn't supposed to lose too much defensively by opting for the more progressive defender as his record at Blackburn Rovers indicated that he would more than hold his own around his own penalty area. Lenihan would eventually lose his place in the side. An enforced change as Lenihan was forced into leaving the field of play due to an injury. Dael Fry would take his place, receiving the baton due to unfortunate circumstances.
Unlike Darragh Lenihan, Dael Fry doesn't look as comfortable playing in a high line as he has a natural urge to sit deeper than Wilder would prefer. Dael Fry's positioning can be a weak link if they are playing an offside trap. When talking about Fry's lack of involvement, Wilder explained that his deeper positioning was one of the reasons he had fallen down the pecking order. The academy graduate was consistently found at a deeper position against Sunderland. However, instead of it being a weakness, it became a strength. Chris Wilder opted to deploy Fry as a sweeper. A role that was popularised by Franz Beckenbauer and Franco Baresi, a sweeper is designed to 'sweep up' behind the defence. They are expected to deal with any attempted balls beyond the defensive line and deal with those that break past the other defenders. The sweeper role is now rarely seen in football as modern coaches have increasingly looked to goalkeepers to adopt this as part of their responsibilities (see Manuel Neuer, Alisson and Ederson).
Note Dael Fry's positioning against Sunderland (No. 6) below and where he is concerning the other defenders and compare with Lenihan's above. It may appear marginal, but it makes a big difference in-game, especially since positioning is only marked when the player touches the ball (his lack of involvement when dropping further back means that it won't be noted in the statistics).
Dael Fry's performance against Sunderland was immense. He showed the Middlesbrough faithful why they were right to call for his involvement and why he should be a nailed-on starter through Lenihan's injury. Whenever an opponent believed they had a chance of creating an opportunity, Fry was there. A shadow that loomed over Sunderland's forwards that never gave them a moment's peace. Time and again, he made vital contributions in the defensive third that could have prevented a probable goal. He may not have contributed the most defensive actions (see below [stats accurate per whoscored.com]), but it is a marginal gap between himself and Clarke. However, that is no critique, as Clarke's previous POTY awards show that he is one of the very best at this level.
Total Defensive Contributions:
Lenihan has also been favoured over Fry for his involvement in build-up play, with him earning plaudits for his passing range while at Blackburn Rovers. However, Fry stepped up to that mantle and thrived against Sunderland. The 25-year-old was heavily involved with the team's build-up play making 31 passes, the second only to Jonny Howson in the Boro side. He averaged an outstanding 96% pass success rate over short and medium distances. While he wasn't as accurate over long distances, making only one successful long pass out of six, even including these passes, he managed an 81% pass success rate.
Middlesbrough got their first clean sheet against Sunderland. While it is a team game, it cannot be a coincidence that it coincides with the first game in which Boro played the towering centre-back in his favoured position.
There is a good chance that the Lenihan experiment isn't over. It will be interesting to see what will happen when Lenihan returns from his injury. Will he slot back into the side? Or will Wilder encourage him to compete for the role? These speculative possibilities are dependent on Fry's continued strong performances though, and so is the club's form from here on out.
A Clean Sheet:
Over the years, Middlesbrough has gained a reputation for being defensively resolute. However, this season has hardly developed along those lines. Middlesbrough had failed to keep a single clean sheet in their first seven games, and instead of being regarded as defensively resolute, opinion outside of Middlesbrough was beginning to shift.
However, a stellar defensive performance against Sunderland will have gone some way to realigning the start of the season with the way the side has been perceived by fans and pundits alike. However, more important than identity, it is a key step away from the issues that plagued Middlesbrough at the start of the season.
Chris Wilder's side has conceded 12 goals so far this season, averaging 1.5 goals per game, the fourth worst record in the league. While this is a general warning sign, it is the gulf between that and the 7.5 goals the side was expected to concede at this point which truly highlighted the side's defensive frailties.
So it is not a surprise that the side's recent upturn in form matches a marked improvement in the side's defensive record. Across the last three games (of which they won two and lost one), Boro conceded an average of a goal a game. In comparison, their games before this run saw them leak 1.8 goals per game on average. This is a positive sign for Middlesbrough going forward, and their clean sheet is a further sign that the team is turning a corner.
Liam Roberts deserves praise for this achievement. Often goalkeepers are given the plaudits for a clean sheet, and it is marked up on their stats sheet despite being a team achievement (particularly the defenders and goalkeeper). However, Liam Roberts seriously deserves credit for his performance against Sunderland. The former Northampton Town shot-stopper was a wall in between the sticks, making numerous impressive saves as he did everything he could to keep hold of the clean sheet. When he arrived at the club, the expectation was that he would be a starter next season following Zach Steffen's departure. However, if he continues in this vein, then it will be very hard to take the gloves off the 27-year-old.