Best, Worst, Most Improved: Middlesbrough 3-1 Sheffield Wednesday
Who was the best, who was the Worst, and who was most improved? Find out which players were highlighted for individual discussion following the victory over Sheffield Wednesday
There is usually two ways that a team goes once they know that there is nothing to play for, they either begin to lack motivation and so the sides form dips or they use this time to test the waters for fringe players, keeping the side fresh with new players with motivation to perform and they start to play with a freedom that can be lacking when the pressure is on to succeed. Middlesbrough has fit into the latter category during recent fixtures as they have a return of all 6 points in the last 2 games. The match against Sheffield Wednesday would have come with added motivation as Middlesbrough manager, Neil Warnock, looked to put one over his life long rivals. He succeeded in this aim with a 3-1 victory.
The game itself was not a good watch, it lacked any rhythm or flow as the game as there were a large amount of stoppages and high turnovers in both sides, preventing either of the teams from building any momentum. While it appeared as though this was largely due to the way Sheffield Wednesday conducted themselves during the match, it most probably favoured Middlesbrough more as the team in red and white have been lacking solid interplay in midfield that often comes with extended periods of possession. Instead, when it was possible, Middlesbrough aimed to find the wide players in gaps in the half spaces and between the midfield and defence to have a real impact.
It may surprise some people, considering the final scoreline, but it was Middlesbrough’s starting striker that had a less than impressive performance against the Owls, which was particularly disappointing as it appeared as though he may have turned a corner with his improved performance against Rotherham United. His struggles were emphasised by the impact that 18 year old Josh Coburn had when he entered the fray, adding a goal to a very impressive first team debut. Meanwhile Yannick Bolasie picked up where he left off against Rotherham United but he proved more clinical on this occasion as he scored the sides first goal and set up another.
(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: Yannick Bolasie
The news cycle has naturally led to questions about the future of some of the sides short term signings and Yannick Bolasie has been the central focus of these discussions. The former Crystal Palace winger joined the club on loan in January after the loan deal in the summer was canncelled due to late paper work and he has done well since his arrival which has prompted fan and journalist interest in his potential future at the club. Neil Warnock recently revealed that he hopes the player will stay at the club next season but recognises that Middlesbrough cannot compete with some of the financial packages that he may be offered on the international market. The gaffer summarised the situation with a comedic comment: ‘… it’ll probably come down whether… he’d rather go abroad because I think that’s where the money is. He’s got enough money, hasn’t he?’ The jovial reply highlights that he recognises the limitations of his situation but there is a sense of hope that he will agree to a permanent deal at the club. However only time will tell if that is the case,
Yannick Bolasie has impressed during his time at the club but it has taken some time for the DR Congo International to get up to speed with the professional game as he had spent a lengthy period on the sidelines during his time at Everton. This is also reflected in his statistics too as 5 of his 6 goal contributions for the side have come in the last 6 matches and the time before that? One direct goal contribution in seven games. So, solely taking his recent form into consideration Yannick Bolasie has provided an awe-inspiring goal contribution every 74 minutes, or to put it into simpler terms a goal or assist every-single-match.
Neil Warnock opted to play a 3-5-2 formation against Sheffield Wednesday with Yannick Bolasie playing a free role up front, allowing him to move into wide areas in order to affect the game with his strongest attributes while also allowing him space to make the runs across the front of the box that he has been known to try.
There were few other starters for Middlesbrough that saw less of the ball than Yannick Bolasie as he became the personification of ‘its not how much of the ball you have but what you do with it that counts’. His 43 touches against Sheffield Wednesday placed him joint 7th as only Grant Hall, Duncan Watmore and Chuba Akpom of the starting XI had fewer touches on the ball. Unsurprisingly he only attempts 21 passes during the game with 2/3rds of these attempts finding their intended target while 50% of his long balls found a man in red and white. Yet it his offensive impact that is mostly deserving of praise. The DR Congo International attempted an impressive 5 shots, with only one, his goal, hitting the target, highlighting that he was a constant nuisance for Sheffield Wednesday and his willingness to release a shot meant that he was always likely to call the goalkeeper into question at some point during the game and Kieron Westwood failed to find the answers. He also delivered two crosses into the box but he failed to find a Middlesbrough head with either of these balls into the box but he would have better luck with his incisive passing as his only key pass resulted in a goal and so adding to his assists tally.
Unsurprisingly, Yannick Bolasie was not heavily involved on the defensive side of the game, but he did contribute when needed as he managed to make four clearances during the 90 minutes.
The highly rated wide player occupied a different role against Sheffield Wednesday but it didn’t phase him as he made the position his own. His dribbling, trickery and shooting often make him an exciting player to watch. The type of player that will get fans out of their seats and Middlesbrough fans will hope that he will be doing just that at the Riverside next season.
Worst: Chuba Akpom
The last instalment of this series commented on the possibility that Chuba Akpom had managed to turn around his form and put on a performance that was more like the player that the Boro hierarchy believed they had signed in the summer. Unfortunately, he failed to build on this performance with an appearance to forget for the former Arsenal forward. In fact, it is most telling when Neil Warnock revealed he had considered brining 18 year old Josh Coburn on earlier than he had, and he was only stopped by the physicality of the match. It is far from saying there is no way back for the striker but he will have a lot to prove over the next few games if he wishes to stay at the club for next season.
It has been a season to forget for all of Middlesbrough’s auxiliary forwards as Britt Assombalonga was a shadow of himself and he is set to finish the season some 10 goals away from minimum the goal tally that Middlesbrough expected from the player having spent some £15m on the DR Congo forward. Ashley Fletcher’s season has been hampered with injury and so he has only featured on 12 occasions for Middlesbrough with a return of 2 goals and an assist. Neil Warnock was originally happy with the player but his refusal to discuss an extension to his contract before the season ended led to him being disbanded from the side. Finally, Chuba Akpom was brought in as a hidden gem, but he has failed to reach the levels that were expected of him as he has managed just 7 goal contributions in 37 appearances. These contributions have been sparse with the player occasionally popping up with an assist or goal before going on another run of limited impact. This is perhaps the most glaring issue as most forwards go through goalscoring stints during a season and then they sometimes hit a lull and the manager can adjust the side or give the forward a break to try and re-ignite the players fire but Chuba Akpom’s have been flickering throughout the season without ever setting alight.
Neil Warnock partnered Yannick Bolasie up front with Chuba Akpom and the 25 year old was expected to be the antithesis of his partner as a more steady constant in his positioning, occasionally drifting into wider areas to support the attacks or coming short for a passing option, he was mostly used as a focal and reference point for runs across and past the defensive line. That said, Neil Warnock’s side clearly favoured attacks down the wide areas with the wide centre backs often pushing forward when the ball came into their wide third. This provided overloads that the side aimed to use to deliver crosses into the box and Akpom was one of the Boro players that was expected to attack these crosses.
A continuing feature in the side this season has been the strikers lack of touches with attacks usually focused through the more dynamic players, particularly the sides wingers. So Akpom should not be criticised for his limited involvement as he had just 22 touches on the ball, the lowest of the starting XI. Instead, it is what he did, or didn’t do with this possession. From these 22 touches, Akpom attempted 9 passes, usually in condensed areas and so it is relatively reasonable that he would only find a teammate 44.4% of the time. More alarmingly, Akpom failed to have a single key pass which has to be considered something of a let down as the majority of the positions he held during the game allow for relatively simple passes that can create chances, instead he only managed to play the ball on the few occasions that found himself in wide or deep areas limiting the influence that he could have had on the match, while simultaneously highlighting how he struggled in central positions. On a more positive note, Akpom was successful in the only long pass that he attempted for Middlesbrough. Yet the most glaring problem with Akpom’s performance came in front of goal as he failed to release a single shot during his 64 minute appearance. In fact, his only real offensive contribution was his two dribbles.
He did have more success in a defensive sense as he made two clearances showing that he managed to dig in and help out the defence when they needed extra support.
This review of his performance isn’t as scathing as it may first appear as his movement to support the attack in wide areas has to be praised and it was from those positions that he was most effective against Rotherham United. If Middlesbrough do opt to keep the forward at the club then he may be most effective in a 3-4-3 formation with a narrow front three consisting of Watmore, an aerially dominant forward (subject to the transfer window) and Akpom as this would allow him to find space, turn and dribble which is where he has appeared most dangerous over recent weeks.
Most Improved: Josh Coburn
There has been a lot of hype surrounding Josh Coburn as his appearances and goals in the youth sides has grasped the imagination of Middlesbrough’s fans and so the anticipation for seeing the youngster play over an extended period was tangible. So every Middlesbrough fan was watching with real interest as he took to the stage and finished his home debut with a headed goal. This was an equally exciting moment for Josh Coburn who managed to achieve a lifelong dream in scoring for Middlesbrough which is simply brilliant to see.
Chuba Akpom failed to convince against Sheffield Wednesday and so the Sheffield-born manager turned to his bench for his replacement, Josh Coburn was readied to join the game in the 64th minute. He quickly occupied his role up front and he certainly offered a different challenge for Sheffield Wednesday’s defence, one that they struggled to deal with.
Josh Coburn played just over half of the time that Akpom had on the field and, as though emphasising the earlier point, he had half of his touches on the ball highlighting that as a forward in this system it isn’t how much of the ball that you have but what you do with it. While he was a step above Akpom in attempted passes, attempting 2/3rd of his passes in half the time, his pass success rate was far from impressive as just 1 of his 6 attempts found a Middlesbrough shirt. While, unlike Chuba Akpom, Coburn did not provide a single defensive contribution as he spent the majority of the game occupying defenders or trying to find space. So far, his appearance does not sound so impressive but he provided a presence up front and a proper focal point for the rest of the team to aim for. While ultimately, strikers live and die by their ability to score goals and the 18 year old consistently looked likely to find the much needed goal. Sure enough, the goal came with a difficult header from a Neeskens Kebano cross.
It started with a short corner, which led to a 2-vs-2 situation with Johnson and Kebano. The DR Congo international took the ball to be byline where he delivered a looping cross into the box, Coburn had to redirect the ball and reintroduce some power and pace to the ball, which he triumphantly succeeded in hitting the inside of the post before finding its way into the back of the net. While the technique in the header was very impressive, it was his run, from the penalty spot to the front post, while being manhandled, that was particularly impressive as it allowed him to get goal side and, failing the header, he could have been in a shout for a penalty.
As you will have realised, there is little in the statistics to separate Josh Coburn’s performance from Chuba Akpom’s performance but the youngster looked a consistent threat where Akpom didn’t and ultimately forwards are on the pitch for that very thing: to help the side score the goals needed to win the game. To put it simply Coburn succeeded in this instance where Akpom didn’t. Josh Coburn looks as though he has the potential to be a special player but it is still very early in his career and it is far too early to gauge whether he can turn brilliant form at the youth levels into an impressive career at the top of football.
https://www.gazettelive.co.uk/sport/football/transfer-news/neil-warnocks-message-yannick-bolasie-20449615 (Yannick Bolasie future)
https://www.mfc.co.uk/news/watch-josh-coburn-post-match-reaction-sheffield-wednesday (Josh Coburn Interview)