Middlesbrough terminated Wilder's contract after an uninspired 1-0 defeat to Coventry. This article will detail what went wrong leading up to Wilder's ultimate departure.
The pre-season optimism has faded on Teeside as their aspirations of a playoff push seemed to be developing into little more than a pipedream. Middlesbrough slumped into 21st position, and instead of looking up, the fans looked precariously down and around them. A season that began with high hopes has steadily developed a concerning pattern.
However, many, myself included, believed that Wilder had the wherewithal to turn the situation around. The underlying numbers indicated that the side was underperforming expectations, and, with a little course correction, the side could be back in the mix.
This was not an unreasonable hope. Chris Wilder had shown that he was capable of turning a situation around when he took over from Neil Warnock. However, as the weeks wore on, so did the Boro fans' patience. My own opinion altered following the Cardiff game, as the performance was now reflecting that of their standing in the table. Rumours tying Wilder to jobs away from Teesside would fan the flames of discontent with the prominent voice in the Boro hopeful calling for his head.
Yet he had been given a lifeline. A serious opportunity to turn it around. Chris Wilder was permitted to stay in the role over the international break. The former Sheffield United head coach had two weeks, albeit lacking some key players, to fix the issues and set course up the league.
The first and last test of Wilder's adjustments would come when the side took on struggling Coventry City away from home. Coventry had not won a game all season. If Middlesbrough won, then the positive atmosphere could help carry the side to a good run of form. If they lost, then Wilder would be left teetering on the edge.
Wilder rolled the dice with two strikers and a change at wingback, giving fate, in the name of Gyokeres, the opportunity to sink the Wilder ship. The voices of discontent only grew following their loss, with many calling for a club statement. On Tuesday, Wilder and his backroom staff's departure was announced. Leo Percovich, a fan favourite for his passion and endeavour, has taken up the mantle on a temporary basis with promotions from the youth quarters to fill up the remaining spaces.
But how did we get here? This article will explain the issues that brought about Wilder's sacking.
Repitition, Repitition, Repitition:
Chris Wilder came into criticism for his refusal to adjust his tactics despite the side's continued slump. He would cite the underlying xG numbers as reason to stick to the plan. While the former Sheffield United boss did announce that he would change the system if he believed that it would be beneficial, he never committed to such a change.
Some adjustments, tweaks to his system and tactical identity have been summarily covered in previous instalments of 3 Things We Learnt (3-5-1-1, 3-5-2, 4-5-1) as he looked to fine-tune the team to turn around their poor fortunes. However, these did little to stem the tide outside of a couple promising performances, and so he would roll the dice again against Coventry City. A decision that will be analysed in detail later.
For now, though, let's analyse Wilder's continued use of his system. What many Boro fans do not realise is despite his claims that he will change the system should he believe it was needed, Wilder was actually indefinitely tied to playing this way. His future at the club was inextricably linked with his philosophy, and its success or failure would be of direct consequence for his own successes and failures at the club. Why? Repetition, Repetition, Repetition.
Few fans can blame Wilder for returning to his favoured system at Boro. After all, it had been his overlapping centre-backs and aggressive, fast-paced style of play which had brought about his monumental success at Sheffield United. In fact, it rightly became a point of excitement among fans following his arrival. Many fans wanted to see the same gun-ho attacking drive at the Riverside. Many papers discussed which potential candidates would fulfil this highly technical role as the excitement grew. With hindsight, it's clear that this clamour was monumentally let down by proceedings. Nonetheless, Wilder went into the summer with the belief that with a few key additions in a few key areas, he could make a good go at promotion with his now team-adjusted highly celebrated tactical system (overlapping centrebacks was a rare instruction in the end). So Wilder got to work.
Chris Wilder subscribes to a highly stringent and disciplined training style. The players are put through their paces in different scenarios with his preferred system. They are instructed just how to act in different scenarios on the training ground, which can seamlessly come together in the match-day situation. Think Mr Miyagi instructing Daniel Russo to wax on/wax off (or in the more recent recreation hang the coat/drop the coat), culminating in actual karate moves. This intensely tactical training around positioning in phases of play could be seen in Middlesbrough's pre-match warm-ups as they worked on attacking phases down the flanks. In training, these moves would often culminate in a goal against a defenceless net, and it would bore some in-game rewards, with a few of Boro's goals clearly coming from these well-drilled moves.
Wilder's intensely detailed, carefully curated style of coaching has produced one of the best-drilled sides in Middlesbrough's recent history. Every player knew their role within the system, and each player fulfilled their instructions with phenomenally consistent accuracy. If you studied Boro this season, the pattern of Wilder's tactical set-up (outside of game-to-game adjustments) was crystal clear. It worked, to a point; the underlying xG did imply that the system was preventing and creating chances. However, issues were born out of the side effects of his training schedule.
Coaches only have so many on-pitch contact hours. Wilder's focus on tactics and phases on the training ground has come at the expense of other areas of training. This is pure speculation, but Wilder's complaints about individual mistakes following their defeat to Coventry and beyond indicate that individual development was sacrificed for collective training. This could go some way to explaining the drop in performances from some of Boro's previous top performers. However, once his side has adjusted to his tactics, the workload can shift towards other facets of coaching. This was seemingly too little too late for Wilder, though.
Another manager famous for his disciplined instructions is Pep Guardiola. The Spanish maestro's sides follow certain patterns of play too, but at a markedly higher level. Yet, his time at Barcelona and a particular interaction with Thierry Henry indicate another issue Middlesbrough faced. An issue that has haunted the side all season. Thierry Henry has famously spoken about negating Guardiola's instructions (https://youtu.be/YRk3wVJp8gI). Despite scoring, he was taken off for ignoring Pep's plan. Henry's anecdote shows how limited their freedom was on the pitch. The same can be said of Wilder's team. When the plan is working, creating chances and preventing them at the other end, it can be the best way of playing. It almost completely eliminates positioning mistakes by players, and its disciplined setup increases the likelihood of repeatable results.
The problems come when it isn't working. Players are so focused on their roles and instructions that they don't adjust to some unique in-game situations, which can make a side vulnerable defensively. It is this and individual errors that have caused the team to concede beyond expectation.
It also creates problems offensively. Wilder's side consistently struggled when playing at a low tempo, against a low-block (when the opposition lines up in narrow lines in front of their box) or a mid-block (the same principle but with the halfway line as the point of reference).
These situations demand something different out of Wilder's side. A team that usually exploits space down the flanks with numerical dominance has to break down a defensive structure with little to no space to operate in. In these situations, a creative player, an agent of chaos, can make all the difference. A player with mercurial talent but the ability to unlock an opponent's defence. However, these players need the freedom to operate and Wilder's well-drilled system simply doesn't permit such freedoms.
It would not be a surprise if restrictions imposed by Wilder played a role in the departure of Martin Payero. Wilder was democratic when discussing Payero last year, but the general feeling around the club was that he would not be a frequent feature in Chris Wilder's team going forwards, injury or not. Payero's language issues and footballing education in a more freeing football world meant that he had a long way to go in order to be disciplined enough to secure a role in the side. However, dynamic creativity like his was sorely lost at times this season. He wasn't perfect and certainly had adaption issues, but Payero's departure spoke about the path Wilder was taking Middlesbrough this season.
When facing these situations, Wilder's side leaned on their positioning and tactics training. The side repeated the same moves and phases. They hoped to wear the opposition down to create a chance. However, these chances rarely arrived, with Boro leaving empty-handed, with the fans cursing the situation.
To make matters worse, despite Wilder's system-based coaching he couldn't change the system he had committed to on arrival at Boro. He had placed too many chips down on that bet. The time and effort Wilder, his coaching staff and his playing staff had put into perfecting the system meant that he couldn't back out. His reputation with the squad and the morale within the camp was on the line. Imagine the feeling after putting in months of effort, simulating the same or similar drills, only to find that it would all be scrapped and you have to start again. Not only that, but it was also your manager's fault.
Then there are the implications of making a drastic change to the tactics. In Wilder's coaching philosophy, it would take weeks, maybe even months, to curate and employ a new tactical system. It was time that they simply didn't have. They could scrap Wilder's intense position training, but that would only prove to have a further cost to his reputation and team morale. After all, he would have not only changed the tactics but also scrapped the method by which they had spent so long learning them. If the change of system wouldn't have resulted in his squad losing faith in him, following a dreadful start to the season, then tearing it all up and starting again may well have. The team would also have tactical hangovers following their intense training over the summer, which would have an impact on picking up new tactics.
Chris Wilder had tied his future at Middlesbrough with his philosophy. There was no way to revoke his position-based tactical set-up, so Wilder had to hope that it would eventually stick. It was close on a few occasions. Middlesbrough looked like turning around their predicament, but, simply, it wasn't enough.
Chris Wilder's tactics are dependent on the wingbacks. These two defensive flankers are expected to do the dirty work in their own third, play a role in general build up and turn good positions into goalscoring opportunities. So it is no surprise that Boro's best performances aligned with the best performances of Isiah Jones and Ryan Giles.
The side's style of play allowed Isiah Jones to thrive last season, with pundits picking out the converted winger for special mention. Despite hitting one goal and three assists this season, Jones has struggled to regain his end-of-season form in line with the sides overall struggles. On the other flank, Ryan Giles has supplied a usually respectable three assists in 11 games. However, these are short of what Wilder would have expected from his two main creative forces.
In desperation, Wilder discarded his almost ever-present wingbacks for more defensive options against Coventry. Marc Bola and Tommy Smith are perfectly capable fullbacks in this division, but their performances from wingback have been left wanting. Middlesbrough looked slow, lethargic, and rarely posed a threat in the first half against Coventry as the side's primary driving forces were sidelined on the bench. It is a decision that makes sense to an extent, play more defensive personnel to shore up a leaky defence against one of the best forwards in the league. However, the trade-off going forward would be one of the things that cost Boro the game. Wilder reverted his decision at halftime, but it would be too little too late.
Middlesbrough's wingback struggles against Coventry were a symptom of a reoccurring issue in the position. Wilder's Middlesbrough created an impressive xG, but, whether it was the finishing or the final ball, they rarely converted these opportunities. It could have clicked further down the line as inconsistency is to be expected of inexperienced Isiah Jones. Meanwhile, Ryan Giles, who has been impressive across many games this season, only grows stronger as he adjusts to temporary life in the North East. However, Wilder will not be in Middlesbrough to enjoy it.
Chris Wilder Sacked: What's Next?
Chris Wilder's position became untenable at the club. But it was a less than ideal change in direction for the club. Under the guidance of Kieran Scott the side was expected to look at sustainable long-term plans; a policy that goes hand-in-hand with keeping a manager for a considerable period. These plans will have to have been adjusted following the sacking of Chris Wilder.
The termination of Wilder and his coaching staff's contract willbe a financial hit for a club too, which could have a serious impact on future transfer business as the club has set itself out as a model for sustainable club ownership.
Kieran Scott's ability as a Director of Football will be challenged in the upcoming weeks. Scott is expected to ensure a continuity between the teams playing styles to prevent frequent overhauls of the squad to please the whims of the head coach in charge at any one moment. To do this Scott needs to make sure there is a thread of continuity in the man the club recruits. Some of the names referenced in terms of the job would call into question this through line.
Carlos Corberan has built a reputation for his pragmatism, but aq change in terms of focus to shore up the defence may make sense in the short term. Corberan also has experience with three at-the-back formations and so should be at home with the squad he has available to him. However, this will be quite a shift from Wilder in terms of the clubs playing identity. This is the kind of change which Boro were intending to avoid under the guidance of Scott. If they go this way, then it hawks back to the drastic switch between Gary Monk and Tony Pulis. In this case, there is a throughline (via the formations), but it does represent a shift that is not ideal.
While Scott Parker has also been criticised for a defence-first policy and his preferred formation does not align with the current squad which could result in a second overhaul. Parker has also gained a troublesome reputation for falling out with the clubs hierarchy when he believes that they haven't supported him in the transfer window. Reports of discontent between Wilder and Boro along the same lines means that this could quickly become a tenuous appointment and it could be too great a risk if Boro are looking for a long-term appointment. However, he is a proven manager at this level with a number of promotions under his belt, and that experience has to be enticing for any club.
Rob Edwards is an inexperienced coach but one that has received considerable plaudits for his capable management of Forest Green Rovers. His time at Watford did not work out as a less than stellar start to the season caused Gino Pozzo to get a little trigger happy. However, Edwards was expecting more time at Watford than he ultimately got with Watford chairman Scott Duxbury coming out at the start of the season to claim that they would back him come 'hell or high water'. Reports from within the camp indicate that despite their poor start Edwards had began to implement a positive identity and philosophy at the club which could have had a positive impact beyond the short term. Edwards prefers to play an attack-minded style of play and has frequently deployed a three at the back formation. He has also shown a keen desire to be part of a long-term project. All of this should align him well with the current situation at Middlesbrough. However, he is highly inexperienced and a risk at this juncture. If it pays off then it could be the reset needed for Boro to kick on. If it doesn't then the clubs concerning predicament means that they could end up in very murky waters.
In the short term, Leo Percovich has been appointed head coach. The Argentinian coach has an incredible story which is a worthy read for anyone curious about Boro's temporary appointment. Leo is a fan favourite and he understands the club and its fans better than most managers ever have. However, this will be his first time in charge of a senior football team and so it will be interesting to see whether he is up to the challenge. Leo will be supported by Craig Liddle, Lee Cattermole, and Mark Tinkler who have made the temporary shift from the youth setup.
It will be interesting to see how this inexperienced coaching group do against Birmingham City. However, it is clear that the club is under no illusions. This is a temporary situation until a more experienced head can be appointed.