A far-from-stellar Middlesbrough performance resulted in a 2-0 defeat at the hands of Millwall.
Middlesbrough entered the lion's den following a hard-fought 1-0 win against Birmingham City. The much-needed win over the Blues brought the side out of the relegation zone as the side attempted to put some distance between the old reign and that of interim head coach Leo Percovich.
Fans would describe the win as a Karanka-like performance harking back to the first time that the Uruguayan arrived on Teesside. Under the Spanish manager, the team would show steely grit and determination without ever being a prolific attacking force. Karanka's side certainly had a strong mentality, and the passion of Leo Percovich seemed to have reignited this frame of mind within the new squad. However, whatever Middlesbrough fans believed they had seen against Birmingham City, had evaporated out of the bus windows on the way down to London.
After the game, Neil Maddison would berate Boro for its lack of a winning mentality. It was the first time that BBC Tees' match summariser had admitted to real concerns about the side's prospects this season, and he is right to be concerned.
Middlesbrough was unlucky with the first goal. The ball had gone out of the field of play moments before the foul had been given, and an unusual deflection sent the ball into the far corner after the original shot sent Steffen sprawling in the other direction.
The second goal was a disaster. Middlesbrough had attempted to set up in preparation for a freekick near the halfway line, but they had done so dreadfully. Zian Flemming, who scored the earlier freekick, was left undisturbed in the box to finish past Zach Steffen. Whether he managed to lose his marker because of a lack of concentration or whether he was never picked up, is just semantics. It simply should not have happened.
Middlesbrough never looked like scoring all game. Yet, Middlesbrough looked increasingly less likely to find the back of the net as the game wore on. Substitutions and changes in formation were made, but they did little to add any attacking impetus. Boro could have played all evening without striking home.
The Deepest Trough?
Middlesbrough has not been lacking in sub-par performances in recent weeks. The side looked increasingly tired and uninspired towards the end of Wilder's tenure. The departure of Chris Wilder will have been seen as a potential turning point for the club. While the side's first win under Leo Percovich will have strengthened this perspective. However, it would only result in temporarily relieving the fans of their frustrations as Boro would put in another poor performance against Millwall.
When a team enters the lion's den, they have to be prepared to fight. Playing against Millwall is a battle and a slog. If you want to come away with points, then more often than not, you have to match their physical and mental toughness. Middlesbrough was simply not up to that task.
The side failed to ever look dangerous in the final third. At best, the team was able to move the ball into dangerous areas, but the final ball sorely lacked. Either the player would hesitate, watching the chance dissipate, or their ball into the box would be covered by Millwall's aerially dominant central defensive pairing. Boro looked to be their most dangerous when running in behind the defence. They were particularly successful when threading balls between the centre-back and fullback, as some minor disjointedness had proved to make this a vulnerable spot for Millwall. However, the striker pairing of Akpom and Muniz was lacking in the pace needed to actually exploit this weakness. Middlesbrough would try to correct this in the second half by bringing Forss and Hoppe into the fold. But, the game had shifted by this point, and any danger posed by Middlesbrough had all but been extinguished.
By the end of the game, Leo Percovich's team managed 7 shots, of which only one troubled goalkeeper George Long. The Northern Ireland man was a potential point of weakness, as benched goalkeeper Bartosz Bailkowski is considered the better shot-stopper, with Long being prioritized for his distribution. If they had been able to challenge the 28-year-old, then Middlesbrough may have been able to expose this chink in the armour. Instead, Long had a quiet afternoon allowing Millwall to use his benefits without having to worry about his potential shortcomings.
Middlesbrough can be excused for the first goal. The ball had gone off the field of play moments before the freekick had been awarded, and a freak deflection helped Zian Flemming to his first goal of the game. However, the second goal is inexcusable. A freekick from near the halfway line was looped into the box. It was a simple delivery and shouldn't have asked too much of an experienced Boro defence. However, Zian Flemming would find himself completely free in the Boro box, giving him the space and time to volley home.
For what it is worth, Middlesbrough controlled possession with 63%. There was little battle over controlling possession, with Millwall happy to cede possession for their pragmatic style of football. Nonetheless, possession is only useful if a team is productive with it. Boro's seven shots and one on-target highlight that they weren't.
Middlesbrough looked slow and lethargic in possession. The tempo was too slow for a team lacking in creativity, and the progression of the ball appeared inorganic and awkward. The side seemed to be caught between continuing along the same patterns of play that they had learnt under Wilder and unshackling themselves from these instructions in preparation for a new manager.
Earlier in the season, we praised Wilder's side for an even and fast transition through the thirds, as the more possession the midfield and attacking thirds have, the greater chance there is of the side creating a meaningful opportunity. This had regressed against Millwall. The Lions put pressure on the defence after losing the ball in order to get into their defensive shape. Boro obliged these passive pressures to keep possession. However, it would result in a situation where the team struggled to transition through the team. Boro's back four (three centre-backs and a goalkeeper) accounted for 29.5% possession, 10% more than the three central midfielders, that had 19.1%. In turn, Middlesbrough ground to a halt at times, with the side recycling possession between their defensive number without risking penetrating passes into midfielders.
Howson and McGree did work to reduce this by coming short, but they often faced active pressure limiting their influence and preventing them from turning and attempting progressive balls forward. A higher-risk policy in these moments could have been beneficial, or pushing McNair into midfield to overload the central spaces may have given Boro an advantage.
As things stood, Middlesbrough struggled in certain aspects in all three-thirds of the pitch. This is not a pitiful situation, though. Boro did show that they were capable in glimpses, they still have a talented squad, and everyone is liable to an odd bad day at the office. While it may not look great at the moment, under the direction of a new manager, they could turn things around this season.
Middlesbrough may have been less than stellar defensively against Millwall, but it was their reaction to conceding that caused the most concern. The comparison between Karanka's era and the current one, unwittingly brought about by Leo's temporary promotion, highlights the stark difference between the two sides. Under Karanka, Grant Leadbitter and other leaders in the side would make a point of addressing the team after conceding. They would either drum them up or point out mistakes and criticise them. It was these characters that ensured the rest of the team continued to perform at the manager's exacting standards. It was these characters that prevented the team's heads from dropping. Does anyone in the current side play this role?
Chris Wilder made a point of addressing the press with concerns about the mentality of some of his squad at the back end of last season. The Sheffield United manager came out and questioned the mentality of some of the team he adopted. It was a statement of intent. That type of mentality and behaviour would not be permitted in his Boro team. He would make short work of separating the weak from the chaff in those that had contracts coming to an end. However, the skeleton squad meant that any other such players were permitted to remain at the club following the end of the transfer window.
The head coach then turned to the window to try and find the right characters. Chris Wilder clearly believed that strong vocal leadership would shape the overall outlook of the side into a winning mentality. Darragh Lenihan was hired under this pretence, and with top-team experience, Zach Steffen was likely categorised alongside him as someone that could potentially bring a winning mentality to the club.
Despite Wilder voicing these concerns, they rarely resulted in any serious consequences. The team did start games slowly, in part due to these issues, but they would show the fighting spirit in the second half to dispel any illusions of a side lacking a fighting mentality. Regardless of opinion on Wilder, the lack of these intangibles against Millwall highlights his phenomenal ability to drum up a motivated mood in his players. If it wasn't for this ability, then serious concern about Boro's season would have risen long before the sides trip to the den.
It is likely that Leo Percovich's temporary charge came to a close with the final whistle at the Den. The Uraguayan coach oversaw a win and loss across his two-game tenure, and he will step down from the position with Boro in a marginally better spot.
Yet, his team has faced some scathing criticism following their defeat to Millwall, as many regard it to be the worst performance of the season to date. But none of the blame for these issues can be laid at the feet of Leo Percovich. The Uruguayan is a great coach, and his passion for the club is unquestionable. His design to get players motivated to play for the badge and the fans isn't only respectable but deserves its just praise. However, Percovich is wildly inexperienced in a head coach role, and it would be unfair to expect him to turn around such a drastic situation. He may well have a pivotal role in moving the team forward, but that should be under the supervision of someone else as head coach.
Some people have belittled his influence behind the scenes over the last week labelling him as little more than a mascot. While his spirited love for the team has made him a beloved figure in the North East, and he deserves his place within the club culture and history for how he so readily adopted the club and area as his own, he does provide valuable input on the training ground.
Leo Percovich originally joined the club under Aitor Karanka. The Spanish head coach brought the Uruguayan to Teesside as a goalkeeping coach. However, he had already built up experience as an assistant coach with Toronto and Chicago Fire before his initial arrival in the UK. He would play a role behind the scenes as the side won its promotion to the Premier League. Then Leo would lose his job on Teesside with Gary Monks appointment, and he would make the journey to Brazil coach at Fluminese. When he returned he was deployed on outfield duties, with Woodgate bringing Danny Coyne in as a goalkeeping coach. Leo Percovich would impress enough as an outfield coach that he would keep the position under head coaches, Chris Wilder and Neil Warnock despite both having an opportunity to shift him back into a goalkeeping coach role. Hopefully whoever gets the vacant spot sees and respects Leo's coaching abilities too as he could prove to be a valuable asset to the incoming coach.
Despite dismissive comments about Leo being a goalkeeping coach, the Uruguayan has spent the majority of his coaching career in a first team assistant coaching role. That extensive experience means that he can hold his own at a Championship standard.
Leo can leave the role with his head held high. It was difficult to fill the stride between the two new managers but he gave it his best shot and gave Boro an extra three points in the process.