Updated: Apr 6
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 to Bournemouth
Disappointment was the buzz word as Bournemouth walked away from the Vitality Stadium with all three points; and walk they did as they barely broke a sweat in order to overcome the Teessiders. The game may have finished 3-1 with Philip Billing, Jefferson Lerma and Dominic Solanke getting the goals for Bournemouth, but it was far from an exciting clash or an impressive display from the Cherries as Middlesbrough looked out of sorts despite Duncan Watmore’s goal that secured his 7th for the season so far.
The most disappointing component to the game was the lack of enthusiasm from Middlesbrough as they appeared to be unmotivated and unbothered as they appeared to trundle through water as though they had come into the game after a number of successive matches on the bounce. Yet the majority of the side, this was the first game back in weeks as the international break presented a good opportunity for a rest from the condensed season and an opportunity for Warnock to spend an extended period on the training ground to eek the best out of his side from now until the end of the season. So what about individual performances?
Duncan Watmore, Middlesbrough’s goalscorer, was one of the few bright sparks against Bournemouth as his movement and ability to lose his man in and around the box posed one of the sides few questions. Meanwhile, Ashley Fletcher’s return has to be seen as a positive as the player is capable of terrorising Championship defences when he is at his best and Middlesbrough fans will be hoping that he will agree to tie his future to the club.
Best: Duncan Watmore
Middlesbrough’s top goalscorer this season despite only making his first appearances for the side in late November. While he has typically played as a wide player, Warnock has preferred him in more central roles and his goal return highlights that he has had some success in this area too. He was once again played in a more central role against Bournemouth and it was this that helped yield his goal.
The former Sunderland players recent form has been steady but not spectacular as he has failed to make a single goal contribution in his last 6 appearances, albeit in a range of minutes. Yet he has remained a danger throughout this period and he has been Warnock’s go-to offensive option from the bench during this period as he was brought on against Millwall, Coventry City and Swansea City.
Warnock made two things apparent with his line-up. In the first case, he was emphasising how he was unsure about summer signing Akpom, deciding to deploy no auxiliary strikers over the former Arsenal man. Equally, Warnock made it clear how expected his side to play in deploying four pacy attacking players. Both of these were to Watmore’s benefit who was deployed as a striker in either a 4-4-2 or a 4-2-3-1, depending on how you interpret the free attacking role held by Kebano. Warnock wanted his attacking players to make frequent runs behind the defenders for McNair and Howson to pick out with long balls over the top of the oppositions defensive line. Unfortunately this was a limited success as while the few balls that were delivered in this fashion, did ask serious questions of a defence that has limited pace, the more defensive players rarely supplied the ball to the players that were capable of these passes instead opting to fireballs into the striker in a fashion that would best suit a target man. This led to a high turnover from Middlesbrough that led to Bournemouth piling on the pressure and ultimately scoring 3 goals.
The goal was certainly Watmore’s biggest contribution, momentarily bringing Middlesbrough level with Bournemouth. This highlighted the players clinical performance too as this was his only shot of the game, giving himself a 100% conversion rate. While he is by no means aerially dominant, he did manage to win a single aerial dual proving that the direct style that ultimately came to the fore was not a complete waste. His game contributions, outside of the goal were relatively limited as the players primary focus was trying to find space and gaps within the defence to try and create one of the sides few opportunities. So it will come as little surprise that he had just 17 touches and 11 attempted passes. Yet his continual attempts to make something happen can be seen in his lowly pass success rate of just 54.6% as he was always attempting to find difficult progressive passes.
The season is steadily coming to a close and Middlesbrough fans will be starting to consider which players deserve particular credit for their performances this season. Duncan Watmore, now on 8 goals, has to be considered among the sides top performers this year.
Worst: Marcus Bettinelli
Recent transfer rumours indicated that Middlesbrough were taking a permanent move for Bettinelli under consideration. This would be an unpopular decision with the fans as he has become the subject of a lot of their complaints and their concerns are not unfounded either as the he has the lowest save per game rate of any of the goalkeeper in the playoff chasing pack. Yet there were a few signs that he had improved over recent games and that there could be a future for him at the club. This was once again thrown into doubt as he had a poor performance against Bournemouth.
Three clean sheets in his last three games saw Bettinelli come into the game on the form of his Middlesbrough career with a number of good instinctual saves that proved key to helping the side put points on the board.
Bournemouth scored early in the game as Phillip Billing broke through the Boro defensive line to be 1-on-1 with the Boro goalkeeper. On the left hand side of the box, the midfielder’s angle was relatively limited, which to Bettinelli’s credit, was made worse by the goalkeepers positioning. Standing in a position which blocked the majority of the far post, Billing had a choice to make, try and sneak into the near post or into whatever gap Bettinelli had left to find on the far post. Billing chose the former, sliding the ball between Bettinelli and the post to put Bournemouth ahead in the 14th minute. While Bettinelli did well in the first instance, positioning himself to ask a question of Billing and improve his chances of success, the dive following this moment was unsatisfactory as he should have been favourite to get something on the ball to push it past the post.
Morsy has to take primary blame for the second goal, in the 66th minute, as his failed clearance led to a difficult situation to defend that, despite his best efforts he was unable to make up for. Yet Bettinelli was far from blameless. On the outside of the box, Lerma had to find a shot path that would make its way past a number of defenders that could clear the ball and bring the opportunity to an end. So Lerma ultimately had one of two options, between Morsy and Bola or between Hall and Morsy. The former of these options did appear to be the most likely route to success as the gap was larger and that was certainly the theory that Bettinelli used as he committed himself before seeing which way the ball was going. He shifted his weight onto the left side of his body, ready to dive and attempt a side but the ball came at his right hand side and gave him little time to adjust to make the save. The most painful element of this attempted save was that he did succeed to get a hand on the ball; as such if he had waited to see the direction of the shot before diving, he would have managed to make the save.
Meanwhile the latter goal, saw Bettinelli punch an awkward shot straight into the path of Dominic Solanke rather than to wider positions that would allow the defence to reset. Any constructive criticism relating to this incident has to be subdued though do to the difficulty of the situation that he found himself in.
His performance against Bournemouth saw the return of his primary fault, prematurely predicting where the shot is going to go. This mistake has undermined his impressive reactions and positioning meaning that his talents elsewhere have been limited by this major issue in his game.
Most Improved: Ashley Fletcher
Middlesbrough has been unfortunate in the striker position so far this season, as Assombalonga has failed to return to the 15 goal a season average that saw Middlesbrough commit a hefty sum to bring him to the Riverside. Chuba Akpom has been far from impressive this season, having originally appeared to be the answer to the sides problems. Finally, Ashley Fletcher has performed well when he was available but injuries have hampered what could have been an impressive season. So his return to the side in the latter stages of the game has to be taken as a positive with the side going through an identity crisis in attacking areas at the moment. Fletcher could prove to be the answer from now until the end of the season and he may even prove to be key to the side beyond that.