Who was the best, who was the Worst, and who was most improved? Find out which players were highlighted for individual discussion following the sides defeat against Barnsley.
Middlesbrough would have gone into this game believing that they may have turned a corner as they had managed to retain a point during a 1-1 draw with the in-form team in the league. Yet Middlesbrough couldn’t turn their relative success against Watford into a positive run as they fell to a 2-0 defeat to Barnsley. It was not a fun game to watch either as Barnsley deployed their long-ball high-press philosophy that caused the game to quickly devolve into a game of hoof ball and head tennis. This best suited Barnsley's aerial prowess and they quickly became the side with more control over the game. Middlesbrough, for their part, tried to compete for the second balls and then play against Barnsley’s weaknesses, with balls over the oppositions high backline.
The source of Barnsley’s two goals will not have been a surprise to those that read the Opposition Profile on the team as both Daryl Dike and Alex Mowatt, named as the oppositions players to watch, found the back of the net. But the nature of the first goal was most definitely a surprise as Mowatt’s cross went straight into the back of the net following a mistake by Marcus Bettinelli. While the second, a close-range header was a lot more typical of an attacker that carries an aerial threat, instead it is the cross, a controlled volley that deserves praise as it is a difficult technique to pull off.
There has been some reports in recent weeks that Middlesbrough are considering a permanent move for Bettinelli as the 27 year old’s contract expires at the end of the season. This news has been met with hostility by Middlesbrough fans as they do not believe that he is good enough for a side competing at the top of the league; and, it must be said, there is evidence that indicates that his form this season isn’t good enough for a top championship side. The strain between the club and the fans on this debate was only worsened over the weekend as his actions led to the first goal and he was clearly shaken following his mistake as he looked less than comfortable for the rest of the game.
Meanwhile Darnell Fisher had a good game against Barnsley, rising to the physical challenge and managing to come out on top on a number of occasions. Grant Hall was also a welcome presence at the heart of the defence as Middlesbrough faced a physical opposition in Barnsley.
(I do not claim any of the original images as my own: all sources are named and images are hyperlinked to the website that they were found. All research and sources used can be found at the end of the article)
Best: Grant Hall
Since his return to the side, Grant Hall has been a revelation, whether he was playing alongside Dael Fry or Paddy McNair, he has been a dominant defender that appears comfortable dealing with most strikers in the league. His role at Reading, his previous club, as club captain has helped him to order and lead a defensive line that has had to adapt and change over recent weeks as Warnock adjusts for injuries and changes in formation. The 29 year old has performed admirably so far this season and he is likely to break the 20 games played barrier despite his injures, should he maintain his current form.
Middlesbrough has always favoured goalscoring centre backs as the club recognises the importance of finding goals across the team. The Spanish centre back defender Daniel Ayala managed to score a goal every 11 games during his time at the club while Aden Flint was signed for his goalscoring record at Bristol City, and while it failed to come into fruition at Boro, his goal every 6 games for the Robins showed that he had previous. Grant Hall may be the next name in this list as he has managed to score a goal every 7 games so far for Middlesbrough, which, if he can replicate over an extended period, would be one of the best goal per game ratios of any Middlesbrough defender. Yet his form doesn’t end there as he has been excellent at the heart of defence, he is usually tasked with marking the striker, where his defensive nous has helped him get the better of a number of strikers including Joäo Pedro.
Barnsley typically play in a narrow 3-4-3 formation with two players, in this case, Dominic Fraizer and Cauley Woodrow sitting in a narrow position behind the striker, Daryl Dike. This meant that it was up to the defensive midfielders to mark Fraizer and Woodrow while Hall occupied Dike. The American forwards goal misrepresents the job that Middlesbrough’s centre back did on the 20 year old as Neil Maddison marvelled at being ‘disappointed’ by the forward during the game which was largely due to the work that Grant Hall did in order to keep the player quiet.
A lot of Hall’s success came out of possession as he marshalled the oppositions striker limiting the chances that he had. He broke up the oppositions play making 2 interceptions while his 9 clearances would have helped to relieve pressure and remove the ball from dangerous situations. While he should be considered partially to blame for the second goal, he appeared to get caught in an awkward position that prevented him from challenging with Dike’s header, this was more due to an unlucky circumstance than a personal mistake.
Due to most of his success coming out of possession, Grant Hall only had 3.7% possession, the 4th lowest of the starting XI, but he made the most of the possession that he did have as he attempted 24 passes from 39 touches, with one of the best pass success rates in the side, he became one of the most reliable passers of the ball against Barnsley. In fact, he managed to retain a 50% pass success rate over short distances which placed him at the precipice of the starting XI in finding a teammate at short distance.
He was also one of few players to pose a threat going forward as his attempt on goal equated to 50% the sides shots on target.
While Middlesbrough’s backroom staff are more than content with Dael Fry’s defensive contribution this season, Warnock has highlighted that his offensive side of the game is relatively weak, calling on the player to contribute more in the oppositions box, particularly from set pieces. In Grant Hall, Neil Warnock may have the perfect player to show the Middlesbrough youth academy graduate how to score from such situations. In a more general sense, the English centre back has been a key figure since his return from injury and he has shown that he could be a vital to the side in the upcoming season.
Worst: Marcus Bettinelli
Middlesbrough fans were concerned about rumours that arose stating that the club were interested in signing Bettinelli on a permanent deal and the club has to take a lot into consideration before they agree to bring the goalkeeper in as a free agent (an upcoming article will discuss this very issue), but he will have to put in some better performances than what was seen against Barnsley if Middlesbrough are to bring him in on a permanent basis.
A few weeks ago, Marcus Bettinelli looked as though he had turned a corner as he put in a number of impressive saves during a period that saw a revival of Middlesbrough’s promotion hopes. However, it appears that the upturn in form was short lived as he has conceded 1.75 goals on average over the sides last 4 games. In fairness, Middlesbrough has faced its fair share of difficult sides during this period and so some leeway has to be given in recognition of the opposition that Marcus Bettinelli was facing.
In general terms, Marcus Bettinelli had a good game against Barnsley his 3 saves from 5 attempts was more than his opposite number. He also contributed to the direct style of football that the game devolved into as he attempted a massive 39 long balls from a total of 40 attempted passes; while these often broke down with Barnsley’s aerial dominance, 35% of his passes did find a teammate. While even playing such long balls was advantageous against Barnsley as it allowed Middlesbrough to attempt to pick up the pieces from the aerial challenges in order to start attacks from within the oppositions half.
Unfortunately, this credible performance was undermined by two mistakes that led to Barnsley’s goals. Barnsley lined up for Mowatt’s corner by crowding out the goalkeeper, recognising that he rarely asserts himself from corners and his movement was obscured by two players (including McNair) that occupied the middle of the goal which positioned the man in green in an awkward position; shunned to the far side of his own goal. He opted to come touch tight with McNair and co. when he would have been better positioned standing in the middle of the goal, albeit past the white line, as it would allow him more range over the goal and he would have been in a better position to win a free kick should the Barnsley man challenge the goalkeeper for the ball in the air. His positioning for the cross left him with too much to do as he had to get around the pair and reach the ball and while he did manage to get a hand on it, he wasn’t able to put enough on it to keep the ball out of the net.
Meanwhile the second goal came in the second phase of an attack that followed a headed attempt at goal from Carlton Morris. This header was far from his best headed attempt and it should have been within Bettinelli's permit to hold the shot instead of parrying it away from goal for Bola to clear. If he had managed to hold the shot then the attack wouldn't have entered the second phase preventing the opportunity that resulted in a Barnsley goal.
Goalkeepers live and die by their mistakes as they stay in the fans collective memory because, more often than not, it leads to a goal and that was the case against Barnsley. Marcus Bettinelli had played well up until the first goal and was aligned to receive praise for his performance and then two mistakes meant that he received attention for a different reason. Unfortunately this hasn’t been the first time this has happened in a Middlesbrough shirt and while there is no doubt that Marcus Bettinelli is a talented goalkeeper, he may have too many issues to become a permanent fixture for Middlesbrough.
Most Improved: Darnell Fisher
Middlesbrough dipped into the January transfer window in order to sign Darnell Fisher and he has become a rotational squad player playing 852 minutes over 11 games, an average of 77 minutes per appearance, showing that he usually plays all the way through his appearances. Excluding a few very impressive appearances, Middlesbrough fans have had a non-plussed reaction to the majority of his game as they recognise that he is a good solid fullback but rarely overawes fans and he is rarely a cause for concern.
His most impressive performance came against Norwich City, when he marked Todd Cantwell out of the game, while a few other appearances have highlighted that he is a fullback that can have an impact at both ends of the pitch, his next best performance came against Watford, highlighting that he is a big-game player who can be relied upon against the biggest sides in the league.
Neil Warnock deployed Fisher as a right back against Barnsley, and his main instructions were to keep Callum Styles quiet, and while the wing back had a relatively strong performance he failed to add to his 4 goals and 2 assists so far this season. Fisher also doesn’t shy away from the physical side of the game, allowing him to deal with Cauley Woodrow when he moved into wider areas of the pitch, in fact it was this component of his performance that should be highlighted as the player typically known to make runs down the flank, found it difficult against Middlesbrough and he was brought off in the 57th minute.
He embraced the physical side of the game against Barnsley as he made 5 tackles, the most of any Middlesbrough player as he was happy to put his body in where it hurts in order to regain possession for his side. While he also managed to help cut out passes down the flank as he managed to make an interception. Yet his most impressive contribution was his clearances as he would tuck in when the oppositions attack progressed down the right flank, dealing with Cauley Woodrow, and he made 8 clearances, the second most of any Middlesbrough player. His defensive performance was indicative of a side that managed to deal with the physical offering of Barnsley in the first half before an atypical goal undermined the sides hard work.
He also played a number of out-balls for Middlesbrough as he attempted 12 long balls, the 4th highest in the side and, although he struggled to find a teammate with these passes, as only 3 found a teammate, it did contribute to Middlesbrough’s attempt to play the ball behind Barnsley’s high line. Yet this isn’t the full story, when it comes to Fisher’s contribution through ball distribution as he also provided 2 key passes, the most in the side and one of his two crosses found a Middlesbrough head. Overall, Darnell Fisher attempted 27 passes with 37% of them finding their intended target.
The 27 year old knows how to walk the line of foul play, often providing a gritty presence that ‘lets the opposition know he’s there’, and he deployed that knowledge in the reverse against Barnsley winning 5 fouls as Barnsley grew frustrated with the former Preston player, allowing Middlesbrough to recoup and catch their breath for a moment, while the inclusion of McNair meant that the team was always a danger from dead-ball situations.
Darnell Fisher was called upon in a game that was always going to require a gritty presence and he answered the call with one of his most impressive performances in a Boro shirt. Middlesbrough fans know exactly where they stand with Darnell Fisher and with growing questions around Djed Spence and the current injury to Anfernee Dijksteel, he may be positioning himself to become the starting right back for the club next season.