Best, 2nd Best and Most Improved: Rotherham United 1-2 Middlesbrough
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 victory over Rotherham United.
Middlesbrough fans will be generally disappointed by how this season has unfolded with the side dropping away from the playoff positions in the second half of the season. While the side will remain in mid-table obscurity until the end of the season, there are still some signs of improvement that go beyond the impressive improvement on last seasons league finish. One of these signs is the sides ability to overturn losing situations as the victory over Rotherham was the 5th time this season.
There was some controversy surrounding the game too as the turning point, a foul by Matt Crooks on Grant Hall, led to the midfielder getting a red card while Middlesbrough’s only traditional centre back had to be withdrawn with a head injury. Paul Warne, Rotherham United’s manager argued that it was a genuine attempt for the ball and that it was harsh to reprimand the player for a clash of heads. While it is clear to see where he is coming from, and such an argument would usually have a lot of merit, but the velocity and ferocity that Crooks committed to the header, travelling a considerable distance, at a considerable speed has to call into question whether he was endangering a player through his actions. The headbutt, at considerable force, did lead to a forced substitution as Grant Hall had to be removed for further medical attention which highlights the aftermath of the challenge as endangerment. Further still, such a decision wouldn’t have been taken lightly by Middlesbrough’s backroom staff as his removal from the game led to Jonny Howson, a 5ft 9 central midfielder, playing in the heart of the defence against one of the most aerially proficient sides in the league. Whether you agree with the decision or not, it would seem wholly unfair for the actions of an opposing player that force a substitution that would leave Middlesbrough undeniably weaker, to not be repaid in some form as it would massively unbalance the competition to no fault of their own. This being said, there is no doubt that Crooks did not intend to injury Hall and it is instead the inconsideration of his surroundings or that he was presenting potential for injury that brought about his dismissal.
Neil Warnock was pleased with the victory but shared a similar sentiment to myself, that it was a shame that the three points came at the bereft of Rotherham United. The Millers have been featured on SkySports on a few occasions during the second half of the season and, watching them through interest in Lewis Wing’s performances, they have intrigued and entertained and they would be a valuable addition to the league next season, if they manage to maintain their place in the league.
Middlesbrough utilised their cul-de-sac end to the season to play with a lot more freedom which favoured a number of the sides attacking talents as Neeskens Kebano and Yannick Bolasie became particularly prominent following Matt Crooks’ sending off. Meanwhile, Connor Malley, the youth academy graduate was given his league debut against Rotherham as he entered the fray for the injured Grant Hall, impressing massively as he was rewarded SkySports’ Man of the Match. His teammates also shared this sentiment chanting ‘Scholesy’ when he modestly displayed his award. On the other hand, Chuba Akpom has been at the pinnacle of Middlesbrough fans complaints this season as many matches appear to pass him by but he put in an impressive display against Rotherham United that was topped off with a goal to add to his tally. Does this present a way back to contention for the former Arsenal man, after many believed he was outwards bound following Warnock’s comments about the scouting department’s hiring practices during the pandemic? The time could be right to claim a first team place as Warnock has told the clubs other strikers, Ashley Fletcher and Britt Assombalonga that their services are no longer needed, leaving the former POAK striker as the only senior forward in the side. While McNair deserves particular credit for yet another superb performance. But the question is, which of these players were singled out for individual discussion?
(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: Neeskens Kebano
Given his performances since his arrival at the club, it would come as little surprise if Middlesbrough were interested in bringing the DR Congo International to the club on a permanent basis. Unfortunately this is a proposition that is growing increasingly unlikely as Fulham may well be joining Middlesbrough in the Championship next season. While even if the London-based side decide to offload the winger, it would cost Middlesbrough a considerable transfer fee, possibly around £1m, and Neil Warnock may look elsewhere to thriftly spend the clubs money in what is going to be a considerable rebuild next season. Whether Kebano joins the club or not in the summer, it has been a pleasure to watch him in a Boro shirt during the second half of the season.
Since his arrival at the club, Neeskens Kebano has played in 16 matches, scoring a single goal and adding to assists. This return, of a goal contribution every 5 games doesn’t do the player justice as he has put in some impressive performances so far. Kebano has appeared to have stepped up the pace in recent weeks at the player provided the assist to Middlesbrough’s only goal in the defeat to QPR before replicating such form against Rotherham United. If he can continue in this vein until the end of the season then it will improve his reputation leading into what could be a key transfer window for the Fulham winger.
It is not practical to mark every player in a man-marking system, which often means that both sides will have spare men. While the side that are man-marked will typically find one or more of their free man in defensive areas, often centre back, there is more variation in the side that has deployed the man-marking system. Some sides favour to keep their most creative player free of defensive duties to allow him to focus on unpicking the oppositions lock, while others may free a single winger, particularly behind an attacking fullback as it allows the wide player to make runs into the space the fullback or wingback vacated. In Middlesbrough’s case one of the spare men can be found at the heart of defence. If the side is facing a single striker then Grant Hall will man-mark the attacker with Paddy McNair is given a free role. However, in order to maintain the spare centre back, Neil Warnock has to deploy an extra centre back when he is facing a front two. He did just that against Rotherham United too, playing Marc Bola, Paddy McNair and Grant Hall at the heart of the defence with wingbacks in Neeskens Kebano and Marvin Johnson providing the width for a narrow front three.
It will come as little surprise that Kebano made the most dribbles against Rotherham United as his role in the side meant that he was depended upon to drive at the opposition with the ball, but he supplemented this with 5 key passes, the most of any Middlesbrough player as he unlocked the Rotherham United defence time and again, showing himself as the key lubricant in Middlesbrough’s attacking system. In providing the width for Middlesbrough he was in the right position to swing crosses into the box allowing him to attempt 6 crosses, the second most in the side, although only one managed to find a black and blue shirt. He ultimately got his rewards for his efforts too as he came away from the game with a well deserved assist. He wasn’t afraid of having an attempt on goal himself either as he forced a save out of the goalkeeper with one of his three shots at goal.
It was equally important, that Kebano played a role in the sides distribution as one of the key links between defence and attack, and he certainly fit the bill as he attempted 27 passes with 81.5% of them finding their intended target. While he is an attack minded player Kebano also had a defensive role to do and he did so well, managing to break up the oppositions play with 2 tackles. Unfortunately he also provided Rotherham with some dead ball situations, which they are a prominent threat from, but he should be excused a little for this minor fault as he is not a defensive player by any means.
SkySports highlighted Neeskens Kebano as the player that had the biggest influence on the game before awarding the man of the match award to Connor Malley and it is clear to see why. The wide player was a direct threat with trickery and good delivery to boot. Middlesbrough fans will be very pleased by his performance and they certainly wouldn’t complain if he became a permanent fixture at the club.
2nd Best: Paddy McNair
Some players deserve near constant praise and Northern Ireland’s Paddy McNair, has had such a season. It says a lot about a player when the most prominent debate about the number 17 is whether his talents would be best served in another position. Yet the game against Rotherham posed a different and difficult question to Paddy McNair as, even with the numerical dominance, he had to command a defensive line consisting of an auxiliary left back and a 5ft 9 central midfielder against a side that was not lacking in aerial threat. While each of these players deserve praise for their role in turning a mis-match backline into a success it was McNair who stepped up to the plate and performed above his recent, still very impressive, performances.
There have been very few constants in the Middlesbrough line up this season as Warnock rotated the side during a compressed, covid impacted season, while the majority of those that would have kept their place through every match: Marcus Tavernier and Dael Fry especially, have been forced onto the sidelines with injuries. This has left Paddy McNair as the only constant in the side this season playing all 43 matches so far. So it would be typical to expect some fluctuation in form over this period but even during his less impressive periods, he has been a top performer and commanding presence at the heart of the defence. In recent weeks, Paddy McNair has found some very solid form indeed and even managed to add to his growing assist tally against Watford.
Since Neil Warnock deployed a 3-4-3 formation, Paddy McNair played as the right centre back, often supporting attacking moves down the right wing with the other two centre backs covering in his absence. The red card changed to complexion of the game and McNair found an increasing amount of the ball and he quickly became the orchestrator from deep and midfield areas.
The first thing to note about Paddy McNair’s performance is that he had exactly 100 touches of the ball, to put this into perspective, Rotherham’s top two players combined came to 84 touches, and this is unsurprisingly highlighted in the players possession statistics too as he had 10.4% of the ball, second only to team captain Jonny Howson. However some players fall into the trap of having a lot of possession but doing very little with it and that certainly wasn’t the case for McNair as he attempted 74 passes with 81% of them finding a teammate and almost 50% of his long balls found a player in black and blue showing that he was key to the teams ball progression. It doesn’t stop there though as the player’s support down the wing allowed him to find space and time to deliver some very promising crosses, with 4 of his 5 attempts finding a Boro head. If this was not impressive enough he also attempted a shot on target and he carried the ball at the opposition defence in his dribble against the side. Yet his best contribution has to be his assist that came from one of his two key passes. While McNair’s role was predominantly defensive he had a direct impact on the side going forward too and his contribution at this end of the pitch was vital in bringing the 3 points back to the Riverside.
Naturally, it is easy to get carried away by what is a phenomenal attacking display but he was also impressive in the defensive quarters as he made the sides most tackles with 5, broke up the play with a single interception and removed the ball from the danger zone on two occasions.
McNair’s performance against Rotherham showed how centre backs do not have to be a strictly defensive influence as, while his defensive contribution was very impressive highlighting himself as a formidable opposition once again, but he also provided a vital contribution going forward. A vital contribution that wasn’t a fluke or a single moment of brilliance either as he was consistently proven to be a threat for Middlesbrough in one of his best performances in a Boro shirt.
Most Improved: Connor Malley
You would have to excuse Middlesbrough fans if their interest in the club’s fixtures has begun to wain in recent weeks as it feels as though there is very little left to compete for, other than pride and a better position in the league, but Warnock has prepared 3 final dishes of potential excitement as he has expressed his desire to give Middlesbrough’s youth prospects a taste of the first team. The first player to get this opportunity was Connor Malley, one of the youth graduates that made up the outfield contingent on the sides bench against Rotherham, he was introduced for the injured Grant Hall and his performance exuberated class. His teammates shared this view too as the chanted ‘Scholesy’ in the changing room after the match.
An injury to Grant Hall posed a serious question for Neil Warnock who recognised that he lacked a straight replacement on the bench. The solution, to drop Howson into defence and bring Connor Malley on in Grant Hall’s place, meant that the 21 year old would be given an opportunity at the heart of the midfield. The Newcastle born player is particularly good on the ball and he separated himself from the rest of Middlesbrough's midfield options with his style of play, a possession dominant midfielder that Boro have been lacking for a number of seasons.
The millennial managed to get up to speed with the game quite quickly and he would go on to have 6.6% of the games possession as he dictated play from the midfield role. He utilised this possession in order to distribute the ball to players further up the pitch with 80% of his 49 attempted passes finding a teammate, of these passes, 8 were attempted long balls, with an impressive 6 finding their intended targets, showing that his pass success rate did not drop over the more precarious longer distance passes.
He also supported the side going forward providing 1 key pass and a cross as he consistently looked dangerous when he was lurking just outside of the box. He wasn’t afraid to have an attempt at goal either with the player attempting 2 shots, one of which troubled the goalkeeper. He also broke down the oppositions play with the player making two tackles and 1 interception.
Connor Malley was a breath of fresh air for Middlesbrough as the side has lacked a player in his form for quite some time and his involvement proved key in the side turning a game of dominant possession into a victory as Middlesbrough have struggled time and again to turn these situations in their favour. In Connor Malley, Middlesbrough may have a very exciting talent and one that may be bled into the first team on a more consistent basis next season.